Outreach Events at the University of Kentucky Inspire and Empower Next Generation of Engineers

Jul 19, 2016

by Alaina G. Levine

Published July 2016

Luke Long, a senior in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Kentucky (UK), was looking for an opportunity to give back to his community. A leader in his ASME section and an avid volunteer, particularly with English as a Second Language (ESL) students, Long envisioned an engineering-themed event that would educate, inspire and empower kids to pursue technical careers. Thanks to an ASME Diversity Action Grant, Long was able to not only make his own dream come true, but also to find a way for youngsters to identify and achieve their own dreams.  

The ensuing outreach project was simply entitled the “UK ASME Spring Celebration,” and involved cooperation between the UK chapters of ASME, Engineers Without Borders (EWB), the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Together the united team partnered closely with the UK College of Engineering and Newton’s Attic, a local science outreach organization, as well as 2 local school districts.

The project consisted of two stages, each with the same goal of promoting diversity and participation with the UK ASME student chapter and the engineering profession as a whole. The first stage involved bringing students in grades 8-12 from the school districts to the nearby Newton’s Attic campus. “Various exciting, engineering and science-oriented activities were held for the students’ enjoyment,” says Long. Lunch was sponsored by outside organizations, with whom the team had built alliances.

The event at the nonprofit Newton's Attic consisted of an entire English as a Second Language (ESL) program from a high school in the local school district, including many refugee children that have been in the city less than five years.

The second stage of the project took place on campus in February (2016). The team held an interactive event the day before the University of Kentucky’s E-Day, which is a public affair executed by the UK College of Engineering. Newton’s Attic provided learning and demonstration resources, and the UK ASME section offered various hands-on activities designed to teach and reinforce engineering principles.  The kids also heard presentations highlighting engineering discovery and innovation, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions, and the unique organizations sponsoring the event.  “It was a fun, carnival-style event promoting engineering and diversity,” says Long. “Specific pieces included exciting competitions and talks given by students from different engineering disciplines.” And perhaps the best part of the day was that the kids got a chance to learn about majors, careers, research, and scholarships offered by and available at the UK College of Engineering. At the conclusion of the day, there was another engaging workshop once more reiterating the importance of diversity in engineering, especially at the University of Kentucky.

By all accounts the project was a complete triumph. Eighty-four (84) kids ended up participating. At the on-campus event in February, several kids immediately caught the engineering bug and ended up returning the following day for E-Day. One especially poignant measure of success was realized when some of the high school students and their teacher, who had been chaperoning the trip, expressed a strong desire to facilitate the launch of a chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) at UK, to meet the needs of the underrepresented minority population of kids who may become future Kentucky Wildcats. “We said we want to make this organization active and you’ll have that support,” says Long. “We wanted to make sure that these proactive students knew the opportunities that are going to be available to them on campus.”

Engineering students have demanding agendas, often combining full course loads with projects, research, internship, and leadership experiences (in ASME and other organizations). But add to that the task of producing a series of outreach events and you get an opportunity to showcase your coordination and time management talents. “For engineers with busy schedules it was a challenge,” admits Long, “but we got it done.”

High school students and a volunteer (left) pose in front of the Ballista pumpkin launcher on University of Kentucky's campus.

The key to success was synchronization between all players. The team, consisting of several members from each club, needed to stay in constant communications with “the highest level of UK administration,” says Long, given their presence on campus, and the nature of the collaboration they had crafted with external partners in the school districts and Newton’s Attic.

While they planned and prepared for as many contingencies as they could, “it was a living event,” says Long. “We didn’t have the final location and date nailed down until a few days before we went live.” Part of the challenge in confirming the details was associated with the ambitious nature of some of the outreach activities. The team wanted to bring with them and demonstrate a ballista, a catapult they planned to use to project pumpkins across the quad. “You can’t just bring this on campus,” he says with a laugh. “There’s risk and liability.” He and his peers spoke with many different university divisions to obtain permission and negotiate the logistics of such a launch device. UK’s Parking and Transportation Department finally agreed to let them use a parking lot for their exhibition. “The volunteers were very wise and level-headed,” he says. “All activities were pretty safe but there’s always risk. We did a lot of thinking on our feet. Everybody had to know the plan. But I was impressed with the crew.”

On the day of the event, the students encountered another unforeseen test, which they handled like pros. Although they had given clear instructions to the schools as to where the buses filled with children should park on campus, the bus drivers made a critical mistake and instead accessed an area of the university that is restricted. And to add insult to injury, university protocol wasn’t followed and the buses were able to drive right past gates that were supposed to be securing the perimeter. “We had to move quickly, and fix the communications,” says Long. “We had to make sure no one at the university was alarmed that there were school buses in this area. I had a contact with Parking and Transportation at UK, and I called one of the top managers there and asked if he could help me troubleshoot this.” Thanks to their quick-thinking and resourcefulness, they were able to direct the buses out of the restricted lot and into the pre-arranged location for parking, before any campus alarm bells were sounded.  

Long emerged from the entire experience a stronger, more confident leader. “The unique lesson for me as chair of the committee was trusting the leadership of the other clubs,” he says. “I generally like to have things under control. But there’s no way a single person can do this. But at the very beginning I said to the other students ‘I trust you’ and let them take control. This was a lesson for me to give that trust and not just steamrolling it and taking it all by myself.” Moreover, because he and his fellow ASME members were working with other clubs on campus, they had a unique opportunity to network and even develop personal relationships with students in other majors with whom they might not have otherwise had the chance to engage. “I learned that volunteering in stuff like this can result in really cool long term connections and friendships,” he affirms.

Interfacing with the kids was also priceless, for both Long and his group. “On event day, I saw my volunteers and team walk in really stressed and [at the end of the day] walk out with smiles on their faces,” he notes. “They had a blast working with the kids, and sharing their own stories with them. This had a big impact on me!” Long, who has volunteered in (ESL) programs for several years, was especially appreciative of the fact that many of the kids who participated were new to the US. “I love ESL, so for me it was very special to see so many ESL students show up,” he says. “Most of them were refugees from other countries. So on a personal note, to see them interacting in this environment, learning and improving their English skills, learning the physics of building projects, and in some cases, getting their first exposure to coding or engineering, was very meaningful. I saw a lot of smiles.”

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