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Norfolk engineer inspires students in design challenge

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District Public Affairs
Published Nov. 13, 2018
girl holds up floating bridge model made out of foam and tape while boy looks at the water the model in going into

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District assists Newport News Public Schools at the NNPS Engineering Design Challenge held at Newsome Park Elementary School, Newport News, Va., Nov. 2, 2018. Fourth and fifth-grade students took on the project of creating a small scale floating bridge out of supplied items to see whose bridge could sustain the most weight. (U.S. Army photo by Andria Allmond)

students gather around to test the model of a floating bridge in a plastic container filled with water. One girl is holding out a measuring tape and a woman is holding a clip board.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District assists Newport News Public Schools at the NNPS Engineering Design Challenge held at Newsome Park Elementary School, Newport News, Va., Nov. 2, 2018. Fourth and fifth-grade students took on the project of creating a small scale floating bridge out of supplied items to see whose bridge could sustain the most weight. (U.S. Army photo by Andria Allmond)

Adults and children are gathered around a container filed with water to see how much sand the model of a floating bridge can handle before it touched the bottom

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District assists Newport News Public Schools at the NNPS Engineering Design Challenge held at Newsome Park Elementary School, Newport News, Va., Nov. 2, 2018. Fourth and fifth-grade students took on the project of creating a small scale floating bridge out of supplied items to see whose bridge could sustain the most weight. (U.S. Army photo by Andria Allmond)

 NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District played a key role in an engineering-design challenge that attracted students from across Newport News Public Schools.

More than 20 top fourth- and fifth-grade teams from across the school district were pitted against each other in the River Rescue Challenge to create the sturdiest model-sized floating bridge. The event took place Nov. 2 at Newport Elementary School.

Leah Weaver, a Norfolk District engineer, served as the engineering mentor and evaluator. She assisted students as questions arose and then – in judging – awarded points based on both construction of and weight sustained by the model.

“As students are involved in the design, or redesign, process they’re allowed to ask me for help,” she said. “They can ask as many questions as they need to, but the teams only have two opportunities to test their designs.”

Supplied with common items like plastic bottles, duct tape and wooden tongue depressors, the teams were given roughly 1 ½ hours to plan and fabricate the bridges. Afterward, the models were placed in a tub of water to assess buoyancy. Sand was scooped along the length of the bridges, symbolizing the transition of vehicle movement upon the structure.

The more sand the structures withstood, the more points awarded to the teams. Judging concluded the moment a bridge section touched the bottom of the tub.

“There is so much excitement in the air,” Weaver said. “All of the students here are so intense and serious about doing well. This is something I could see me doing when I was their age.”

Weaver added she believes cultivating science, technology, engineering and math – collectively known as STEM – at this early age could certainly be part of grooming next-generation engineers. That led her to take part in multiple community outreach events since joining the Corps.

“When I was growing up, I really looked up to my grandfather who was an engineer. Also, I was involved in different programs that were based on science and engineering elements,” she said. “My career choice was definitely influenced by all of these elements and I hope that what we’re doing here can offer that to these students.”

While STEM was certainly on display during construction, USACE and school district officials knew character was also being built.

“And just as important is that [the students] are reliant upon strong teamwork, communication skills and trust,” said Tami Byron, STEM Instructional Supervisor of Curriculum & Development for Newport News Public Schools. “Of course, every team here wants to win, but we’re so proud of every student that made it here today; they are the best-of-the-best in each of their schools.”

Norfolk District will continue the mission of delivering STEM programs to the community, commonwealth and country through events such as this.  But it is the Corps’ people who drive that mission.

“I love being a part of this and helping to build the next generation of engineers,” Weaver said. “And I’m grateful to be part of an organization that makes STEM education a priority.”