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National Engineers Month puts ODOT employees in the classroom

An eastern Oregon elementary school student crafts a bridge from paper. 
Several dozen ODOT employees became teachers, if only for an hour or so, as part of National Engineers Month. Apparently, they missed their callings – according to several real teachers and hundreds of appreciative students!
National Engineers Month is a chance for ODOT’s talented staff to give young minds a glimpse of potential career opportunities. Every year, we have planners, archaeologists, engineers and others visit classrooms all over the state, making a difference along the way. 
Sharing life stories and lessons with eastern Oregon students
When Chris Barker was in grade school, one of his teachers told him he would be a good engineer because he liked to build things out of blocks and other toys. Although he didn’t know it then, that prophecy would eventually come true. In 2010, he graduated with an engineering degree from Boise State University and now works as an engineering specialist for ODOT’s Ontario Construction office.
Barker doesn’t think the early comment was a driving force in his pursuit of an engineering career, but he knows that encouragement received at an early age can truly help shape a person’s destiny. That is one of the reasons he was eager to participate in National Engineering Month, spending a few hours in February talking to kids at Pioneer Elementary School in Ontario.
“This was my first experience with talking to kids for National Engineering Month,” Barker said. “It was fun and I really enjoyed it.”
Accompanying him was ODOT Construction Project Manager Luis Umaña, who also works out of the Ontario office. Umaña added another perspective to Barker’s presentation, as well as sharing information during three visits he made on his own to the Alameda and the May Roberts elementary schools in Ontario and the middle school in Nyssa.
Schools in the area have a high percentage of Latino children for whom English is their second language. That was also true for Umaña in his younger years. At age eight, he and his family fled civil unrest in El Salvador and received asylum in the U.S. After his first few years of school in California where classes were taught in Spanish, his family moved to Hermiston. There, he started fifth grade in an English-only school. It was a monumental change for the small boy, but after a rocky start, he forced himself to study hard through the summer so he could be ready for sixth grade. It was a major turning point in his life and one that put him firmly on the road to success. It also gave him a unique kinship with several students in the classrooms he visited.
“How many of you wait for your parents to tell you to do your homework when you get home from school?” Umaña asked the grade schoolers.
After many of the kids admitted they were too busy playing video games or watching TV, he pointed out that they really were old enough to take education seriously.
“You have to get to the point where you are not relying on your parents to tell you what to do in life to succeed,” he said.
Some of the kids shared that their parents brought them to the U.S. like Umaña, without English-speaking skills. They told him that listening to his experience inspired them to continue – and to understand that they, too, can make it; they, too, can succeed.
Grade school student Jessica Vasquez sent Umaña a note, saying, “You made me think about how I can make a change and be a new person. It means a lot to me that you shared your life story… because now I feel like I can be, make, or do anything in life.” She closed with a post script that read, “I hope one day I could be something like you :)”
“That was pretty cool,” Umaña said.
Along with Barker and Umaña, several ODOT Region 5 Tech Center employees from La Grande visited schools in the northern part of the region. Roadway Manager Tom Wallace, Bridge Engineer George Bornstedt and Roadway Designer Robyn Mills gave presentations at La Grande High School. Wallace also gave solo presentations at the middle and high schools in the tiny community of Ione.
All the presentations included background information on what engineers do and what schooling is necessary, plus the popular hands-on activity of building a bridge out of paper and seeing how much weight it could support.
“We always see some variations during the paper bridge building activity,” Wallace said, who distributed four pieces of paper and a foot-long length of tape for building materials.
Folding the paper like an accordion or rolling it in tubes is a popular approach. One group of students at Ione applied a new twist by stuffing the rolled up tubes with small scraps of paper.
“The students were thinking the paper scraps inside would provide extra support, like the human bone,” Wallace said. “It’s great when you see new ideas like this. The kids were very receptive, attentive and creative.”
In Ontario, Barker and Umaña had the students apply their bridge-building ideas individually first, then together in groups. Later, they were asked to compare working alone versus the team approach, with most students recognizing the benefits of a collaborative effort.
Barker doesn’t know if the ODOT presentations will play a part in the students’ future paths, but there is evidence that some were inspired by the problem-solving exercises and personal experiences the employees shared. One of the teachers told Barker that kids continued to bring in new paper bridge designs for several days after the ODOT visit.
Barker thinks those kids will make good engineers.