Summer engineering program fosters genuine interest for some students

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010; B01

High school students Aszurtoine Gunter-Fields and Terrell Ford built a bridge that just wouldn't break.

Using only spaghetti, epoxy resin and glue, the rising seniors at Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School engineered a bridge Friday that withstood nearly 58 pounds before collapsing.

The project was the culmination of a four-week Johns Hopkins University program for high school students held at the University of the District of Columbia. Aszurtoine and Terrell were among 10 District students who participated in the program, in which professors compact a semester-long freshman engineering course into four weeks for college credit.

Engineering Innovation, which Johns Hopkins has taken nationwide since 2006, is designed to encourage students to pursue careers in engineering and science. According to the university, 90 percent of students who participate in the summer program continue on that path.

On Friday, the D.C. students put their bridges, and their knowledge, to the test. Each team of students built a bridge using the same materials. Then, two tables were placed 50 centimeters apart, creating a gaping gorge for the bridges to stretch. A bucket was hung from each bridge, and students filled it with 16.9-ounce bottles of water, one at a time. The best bridge would be the one that could hold the most bottles.

Aszurtoine and Terrell took their turn. They reached two dozen bottles, and their bridge hadn't budged. The bridge that was tested before theirs collapsed after just seven.

"I'm scared," Aszurtoine whispered anxiously as Terrell slipped another bottle into the basket. "Oh, my God!"

They kept going until the bucket was full. The bridge remained standing, leaving the judges perplexed. So they straddled bags over the sides of the bucket and kept loading. They reached 48 bottles, then snap -- the structure gave way.

"I didn't think it would hold that much," Terrell said afterward, surprised that their "rush job" bridge had held.

"We thought it would break at, like, seven bottles," Aszurtoine said. "I just wanted it to break already. It was taking too long."

Another bridge managed to hold 49 bottles, but after the judges figured in other factors, such as the weight of the bridge, Aszurtoine and Terrell were named the winners.

Stanley Onye, director of the Science and Engineering Center at UDC, said the program is a valuable tool for District students and lobbied the participants to continue their education in the District -- at UDC.

Onye said that the partnership between Johns Hopkins, UDC and area high schools will be "a combination that all of us can benefit from."

Terrell, 17, said there are several engineers in his family, including his father, and he'd like to follow in their footsteps. He's looking at Grinnell College in Iowa or Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he might play football.

Aszurtoine, 17, plans to use science as a roundabout way to her passion: a career working with children. She plans to become a pediatrician and hopes to own a day-care center.

School administrators recommended her for the program, and she said the lessons of engineering -- problem-solving, hands-on planning and building -- will help her no matter which career path she takes.

Shiesha McNeil, 16, discovered a new potential career during the four-week course.

Shiesha -- whose bridge held 49 water bottles -- had never worked with electric circuits before the class, and she became enthralled with the science behind electricity.

A rising senior and classmate of Aszurtoine and Terrell's, Shiesha is looking at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University. She wants to be a software or computer engineer.

"I've never worked with electricity like that before," she said. "I got to work with circuits! I got to make a robot move!"

As the robot moved, she snapped pictures with her cellphone and quickly posted them to Facebook -- evidence of the moment she found her path.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company