Toys, games, explosions! Engineers reach out to school kids

LIFTOFF! A volunteer with Berkeley Engineers and Mentors (BEAM), left, launches a water bottle rocket as part of a lesson for local elementary school children in force, thrust and drag. PHOTO COURTESY BEAMLIFTOFF! A volunteer with Berkeley Engineers and Mentors (BEAM), left, launches a water bottle rocket as part of a lesson for local elementary school children in force, thrust and drag. (Photo by BEAM.)“We are very privileged to have this education.”

Susan Chen, a senior in bioengineering, doesn’t make that statement lightly. Among the first in her family to go to college, she freely talks about how a college education remains a distant dream for many young people and how fortunate she feels to be at UC Berkeley. “So, I want to give back. I want to get others excited about college and about being an engineer. I want to make a difference.” In BEAM, she does just that.

BEAM, Berkeley Engineers and Mentors, got its start last year when a group of engineering students saw a need to organize science and engineering outreach to local schools. For years, engineering societies have sent members to K–12 schools to teach concepts and mentor younger students to meet their community service goals. But coordination overlapped or fell short, and lesson plans and best practices often disappeared or got lost in forgotten files. With Berkeley’s characteristic can-do spirit, a group of society officers took the initiative to start a club that would remedy the problem.

A year after its founding, BEAM’s original administrative mission has blossomed into a student-run, student-led outreach program involving 40 full-time volunteer mentors who serve roughly 100 K–12 students—many from disadvantaged backgrounds—at seven elementary and high schools in Berkeley and Oakland.

Funded by a variety of sources, BEAM runs a two-unit class that trains college students to teach science and engineering concepts to lower grade levels, lead hands-on projects, manage a classroom and evangelize a college education to younger peers. BEAM also supervises weekly mentoring visits to schools; coordinates outreach events hosted by Hispanic Engineers and Scientists, Society of Women Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers and other clubs; and helps organize Engineering 4 Kids Day, a day-long campus event that introduces youngsters to the field.

BEAM’s professional, organized approach has won it kudos from teachers and administrators. But the club’s focus on fun has driven much of its success. Volunteers spend hours developing lesson plans and crafting interactive projects that will grab and keep a fourth-grader’s or teenager’s attention. Diapers get ripped apart to explore their chemical underpinnings, strawberries poked and prodded to extract their DNA, and a game of dodgeball becomes a lesson in momentum, collisions and conservation of energy.

FUN COMES FIRST: Officers of Berkeley Engineers and Mentors (BEAM) credit their success with making science and engineering fun and interesting for younger students. PHOTO INNOVATIVE DESIGNFUN COMES FIRST: Officers of Berkeley Engineers and Mentors (BEAM) credit their success with making science and engineering fun and interesting for younger students. (Photo by Innovative Design.)Sometimes projects are inspired by an engineering class. BEAM president and ME/MSE senior A.J. Almaguer saw great potential in a lab assignment and adapted it into the very successful BEAM project, “Water Bottle Rocket.” Others sweeten academic material with games and silliness, as in “Jeopardy and the Neural Network,” “The Creation of Slime” and “Ice Cream Making.”

During one project at Oakland Unity High School, engineers led students in building and programming Lego® Mindstorms® robots to navigate a 10-foot-long obstacle course. It became a powerful lesson in how computer programmers—and engineers in general—test their work, watch it fail and then try again until they reach their goal.

“Our students are so caught up in either achieving quick success or accepting failure that persevering until you succeed is a really important lesson for us,” says Rowan Driscoll, a science teacher at Unity.

He adds, “It’s not easy to engage high school students on a Friday afternoon, but BEAM does a really good job. They offer a valuable service to the community.”

The engineers benefit just as much from the mentoring. They strengthen their understanding of a subject matter and hone presentation skills. They practice teamwork and learn how to communicate well. And they gain confidence as leaders.

Almaguer, one of BEAM’s founders, now considers himself an entrepreneur after helping turn a vague idea into a full-fledged, successful organization. “I’ve grown so much as a leader and as a community member,” he says. “Everything I’ve done in BEAM is applicable to the real world.”

For Susan Chen, BEAM’s vice president, volunteering in the club sparked an interest in teaching. Now she wants to become a professor.

Mostly, though, these mentors love sharing science, engineering and the benefits of college with younger students. And that’s making a difference. During one visit to an elementary school, fifth graders grumbled about having to learn science, but when the Berkeley students arrived, the children jumped around in excitement. And after the lesson was over, they clung to the engineers’ legs, pleading with them, “Don’t go, don’t go!”