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UNL engineers lead middle school club with hands-on transportation learning

Twenty students rev their engines for science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning with Roads, Rails and Race Cars, an after-school club at Lincoln’s Culler Middle School. The sixth, seventh and eighth graders are mentored by graduate students from the Mid-America Transportation Center with the UNL College of Engineering.

This semester, Nebraska Engineering representatives have led different hands-on activities on Monday afternoons at Culler. One topic was SAFER barriers--developed at UNL and used at NASCAR tracks to save lives in crashes. Another session shared global positioning system (GPS) and laser radar (LIDAR) devices to detect speeding traffic on busy Vine Street near the school’s entrance.

In February, Culler students showed off their projects to parents, teachers and Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel, who praised the interaction as “opportunities for students to connect what they learn with what they want to become.”

Principal Gary Czapala thanked the engineers for sharing “whole new worlds” with the Culler community. Culler is a Title I school, having 40 percent or more of its students come from families that qualify under the U.S. Census definition as low-income, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Eighty-five percent of Culler families qualify under this guideline.

After attending MATC's Professional Development Science and Math Summer Institute, sponsored in part by Nebraska's Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education and the U.S. Department of Transportation, Culler science teacher Mary Herrington proposed a transportation-themed after-school club to help the school’s sixth, seventh and eighth graders engage in STEM topics and think about possible careers.

Working with research faculty Gina Kunz and Gwen Nugent of UNL's Center for Youth, Families and Schools, MATC Director Larry Rilett, a civil engineering professor, secured funding for this club through a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Nebraska Engineering’s Scott Sorensen and Quentin Rodgers, both pursuing master’s degrees at UNL, said they enjoy helping at Culler.

“It’s my favorite part of the week,” Sorensen said. “It’s fun to introduce a concept in a short period of time and get (the students) excited about engineering.” Sorensen is learning, too -- for his first time designing a lesson, he taught about erosion with milk as the liquid wearing down pudding as soil.

At the event’s table displays, eighth grader Radious Walker-Woods discussed the merits of bridges built from drinking straws and tape, and how she learned the value of support beams and deflection in her design. Her mother, Gwen Walker, and aunt, Sharon Walker attended the gathering and said they liked seeing the younger students’ interest in engineering starting early.

At another table, seventh grader Tyren Baker shared the secrets of a foil boat successfully carrying a cargo of pennies. He said a square shape with walls at its edges allowed a design to hold more than 100 pennies. Fellow seventh grader John Eggerss said his foil vessel’s canoe shape had too much of a dip and held fewer coins.

Nebraska Engineering students lead transportation club after school at Culler Middle School

Culler Middle School student Carlos Mendoza shares learning from his Roads, Rails and Race Cars experiences, mentored by Nebraska Engineering representatives including (from left, in red lanyards) civil engineering graduate student Scott Sorensen and Professor Larry Rilett.