Engineering ‘Boot Camps’ Boost Competitive Spirit
For U.S. military engineers, it is never too early to start training new recruits. This summer, 140 high-school students got an early immersion into engineering and a heavy dose of military precision at week-long boot camps run by the three services and the Society of American Military Engineers. Awakened at 06:30 each day, campers were immersed in an engineering bubble, with a jam-packed schedule that included lab experiments, offsite facility tours and scores of hands-on projects. Organizers even scheduled, down to the minute, Ultimate Frisbee games and how long it would take students to cross camp grounds.
Organizers of the three camps, at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.; the U.S. Navy’s base in Port Hueneme, Calif., and an Army reserve center in Vicksburg, Miss., aimed to offer prospects a preview of military engineering that encourages them to steer their careers in that direction.
“Given the decline in U.S. citizens who are going into engineering, we really want to get kids fired up about it,” says Scott Prosuch, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is now chief senior program manager at Tetra Tech, Pasadena, Calif. He is a founder of SAME’s academy-based camp, its first that began in 2000. The camps accept students going into their junior or senior year of high school.
Teambuilding At the Air Force camp, organizers infuse a “Top Gun” competitive edge by dividing participants into squads, flights and other teams. Assignments that begin as instruction sessions end up as hands-on races to win. Campers are given individual handles and call names to simulate the military experience and encourage bonding and team competition skills. They experience military life by spending some nights sleeping outdoors in government-issue tents and mummy bags.
Team engineering projects are judged on accuracy, strength, water resistance, effectiveness, skill involved and overall success in achieving a goal with a winning spirit. By week’s end, a winning team is declared after all projects are evaluated.
The camp experience made an impression on Britta Bigej, 17, of Santa Fe, N.M. “I think you get a feel for a lot of different aspects of engineering,” she says. Bigej says that her first choice for college, at the moment, is the academy, where she would like to study aeronautical engineering. That interest was piqued by the camp’s “engineering-reaction” instruction this summer, she says. It involved participation in six assignments, including assembling a raft to navigate across a lake and a pulley system to maneuver a 100-lb weight.
At the camp in 2007, students built rafts from ice coolers and wooden planks for a lake excursion to rescue “Wilson,” a volleyball fashioned to resemble his namesake in the 2000 movie Castaway, starring Tom Hanks.
Bigej says the teams’ construction assignments did not always end successfully, but students and an army of volunteer mentors joined in extensive daily assessments of what went right and wrong in achieving preset goals. “It was absolutely hands-on,” says Prosuch. “It was up to the students in terms of how they wanted to build everything, but then we went back and asked questions after the fact. Everyone got the benefit of instruction afterwards.” Mentors included academy upper-class cadets, young engineering professionals and military retirees.
While the camps differ in daily regimen, a staple of all three is learning how concrete is made and unmade. At the Vicksburg site, student teams created their own mixtures. These were poured into cylinders that were allowed to set for a week, and then stressed and broken.
Among the highlights of the Port Hueneme Navy camp was the Popsicle stick bridge strength test. The 2-ft-by-4- in. structure built by students held out to 60 lb, but they were outdone by camp mentors whose bridge withstood 90 lb. The collapse was traumatic for some campers. “You could just hear the last stick crack, and it was catastrophic,” says Neil Ebuen, an officer with the Naval Construction Training Command in Port Hueneme. He and other Seabee engineers-turned-teachers evaluated weaknesses or failures of the student-designed bridge, including the overall weight-to-sustained weight ratio.
Field Trips Venturing off-site to local architecture and engineering firms, construction sites and materials fabrication plants were particularly eye-opening for students. Academy camp participants took full advantage in meeting engineers in Colorado Springs to discuss the firms’ current project and business challenges.
Army campers visiting the nearby Grand Gulf nuclear powerplant in Vicksburg watched a leak test being performed that taught them how to measure inflow and outflow of substances to prevent radioactive materials from escaping. Campers’ skills in finding, isolating and solving a problem were tested during a simulated system failure. Henry Dulaney, a camp organizer and official with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Vicksburg district office, says students performed the same exercise that the plant uses as a simulation module to train its own staff.
While the camps seem to mirror service academies in competitively selecting participants, they also provide them with financial aid packages to cover the $550 tuition and additional transportation costs. Bigej was sponsored by her local SAME chapter. “It’s a lengthy selection process that is similar to applying to a service academy or an ROTC scholarship,” Ebuen says. The Navy and Air Force-oriented camps specify that applicants should indicate some interest in going on to a service academy, although the Army does not. One recent Air Force camp bulletin encouraged camp graduates to “remember deadlines” in seeking service-academy admission.
Dulaney says that while boosting Army recruitment is not the impetus behind that service’s camp, it is definitely something on everyone’s mind. “We see it as part of the solution to not enough kids going in to study engineering and science,” he says. “Down the road, we will have done our part.” Dulaney notes that a number of camp graduates from past years have returned as mentors.
SAME Director Robert D. Wolff says Navy and Air Force camp organizers stay in touch with graduates to track the progress of their education and career choices. Organizers say that about three-quarters of nearly 500 former campers chose to pursue an engineering or construction-related degree. “This is one of the best things that SAME has done,” says Wolff. “It’s helping kids define themselves, their way in life and what their interests might be in engineering.”
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