Our very own CJ Walker, PE, Cheyenne Civil Service Center Manager, recently spent some time with some third graders at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Cheyenne, Wyoming to discuss the role of civil engineers, introduce the engineering design process, and finally, engage in a fun activity including the design, construction, and testing of a Mint-Mobile vehicle.
In partnership with the University of Wyoming for Engineering Week 2023, CJ, along with various other UWYO alumni, was paired with a third-grade class throughout the state to increase understanding of and interest in engineering and technology careers. CJ’s activity included designing, building, and testing a model race car made from simple materials, such as Lifesaver breath mints, to explore independent, dependent, and control variables in measuring the changes in distance traveled with the addition of mass to the vehicles. Students practiced the steps of the engineering design process by brainstorming, planning, building, testing, and improving their mint mobiles.
“My discussions focused on the idea that ‘mistakes are opportunities to learn’. When something doesn’t work the first time, you just go through another iteration and work to improve your design,” CJ explains.
Each vehicle went through three trials with improvements to the car between each trial. The cars that traveled the furthest in the first trial did not travel as far in the next two trials. They then discussed how sometimes our “improvements” actually don’t work as well as we thought and how these are some of the best opportunities to ponder and learn why the improvements decreased their results. Many of the students originally taped the breath mints to their vehicles and watched as the vehicles plummeted down the ramp to hit the carpet. They were a little discouraged, but with a little encouragement, they went back to the drawing board and every group had a functioning vehicle before the end of the activity.
CJ admits that it was a little challenging to restrain himself from becoming overly controlling during the construction phase of the vehicles. His usual instinct is to jump in and help when he sees issues developing, but it was beneficial to allow the natural flow of events to occur for the kids to learn a lot more rather than if he had jumped in and taken over.
“Creativity is a key to success in engineering, and these children are chock-full of it. As long as our society can encourage and foster the creativity and determination of these students, then the future of engineering is bright,” said CJ.
The experience ultimately reminded him that your attitude determines your success. It may seem difficult to imagine that a group of third graders would be able to build functional mint cars in such a short period of time, but the energy and determination of these students were palpable. They were confronted with a task that they did not know how to accomplish, but they were determined to succeed.