Meet Five Future Engineers (and their Mentors)

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Ellie and Travis Earles

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“I’m just not a math person.”

It’s a common refrain, and one that 15-year-old future engineer Ellie Earles once shared. Her father Travis has a simple response:

“Are you a French person?”

Actually, no. But the point is, Ellie – and just about anyone – can certainly study French, understand the culture, practice hard and learn to speak the language.

“It’s the same thing with math,” Travis says. “Math is its own language. It has rules and syntax, and anyone can learn it and use it. It is such a critical tool in the problem-solving toolbox for future engineers.”

In addition to Ellie, her brothers Tim, 14 and Joe, 11, and sister Mary, 10, have all caught the engineering bug early – just like their father. An interdisciplinary background in biomedical engineering led to Travis’ work with nanotechnology – the engineering of materials at the molecular scale – eventually landing him a job at the White House overseeing the National Nanotechnology Initiative and emerging technology policy.

For the past four years, he has led Lockheed Martin’s cross-corporate efforts in advanced materials and nanotechnology, fostering innovation and transition of materials to improve the performance of products like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or Orion spacecraft.

“Everything our company makes depends on materials. Whether it’s simple stuff like high-strength steels or much more complicated stuff like the coatings we put on planes to make them stealth, the more we can engineer those materials to perform better, the better off we are.”

Who wouldn’t be fascinated? Including Ellie. Recently, she won a local multi-county science fair with a project focused on using ferritic nanomaterials to safely and effectively clean oil from water.

Following their passion, Travis and his family will again attend the USA Science & Engineering Festival this April in Washington, D.C., to encourage students from around the world to get excited about engineering.

”I am so fascinated by how things work,” says Ellie, who also loves to write, ride horses and play soccer. “Dad has often reminded me to not define myself by a subject or my relative success in it, but to work hard to learn and enjoy that process. And it ends up being rewarding.”

Great start for one of the world’s future problem-solvers and makers!


Michaela von Schaumburg and Jennifer Kane

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For most people, a high school class that allows you to build rockets and windmills seems like a dream. But for Michaela von Schaumburg, it’s her reality every time she enters the hallways of Timber Creek High School in Orlando, Florida.

That’s because she is one of thousands of students across the country who is enrolled in Project Lead the Way or PLTW, a K-12 curriculum program designed to help students build skills in STEM. Michaela will graduate in the spring and her final class, Aerospace Engineering, has been truly eye-opening.

“Going through the design process – from sketching and modeling to the actual construction – feels like a culmination of all my past classes,” Michaela says. “The PLTW classes are not like any other typical high school classes. They create unique environments and show you a new way of looking at things.”

And it’s not just good coursework that keeps Michaela inspired. Jennifer Kane is a Project Lead the Way teacher, who has had her own share of enlightening experiences by introducing students like Michaela to engineering.

“Teaching these classes would mean stepping outside of my comfort zone and having to adjust my teaching style, but now that I’ve been teaching engineering classes for several years, I couldn’t be happier,” Jennifer says. “I have become a facilitator rather than a lecturer, and there is no longer a definitive right or wrong answer to a problem.”

Jennifer’s students take everything from ‘Introduction to Engineering Design’ to ‘Computer Integrated Manufacturing’ and ‘Digital Electronics.’ Regardless of the subject, for both Michaela and Jennifer, it all boils down to real-world education.

“In the five years that I’ve been teaching engineering, I’ve never heard the question, ‘Why am I learning this?’” Jennifer says. “Students see how math and science are applied to real-world problems and they start to place a higher importance on learning those subjects.”

So what’s next for Michaela? She plans on going to the University of Florida to study either electrical or aerospace engineering.


Chauncey Cannon, Isaiah Bates and Dan Oropeza

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Despite major strides in technology over the last few centuries, the basic design of the umbrella still dates back to the 1700s. Can it be improved?

Chauncey Cannon and Isaiah Bates think so.

These budding engineers have taken on the challenge to re-design the umbrella for their senior project at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C.

“When you close an umbrella, your hand gets wet,” says Isaiah. “We’re trying to have that not be possible.”

It’s an ambitious project – but thanks to their background in engineering coursework through Project Lead the Way (PLTW), the duo is preparing to roll out a prototype to their classmates later this semester.

“It’s fun because I like doing something creative and not following a specific platform,” says Chauncey.

Both students were inspired to pursue engineering thanks to their role models. Growing up, Isaiah looked up to his dad while Chauncey’s grandfather showed him what it’s like to be an engineer. Now, they both have found a role model in Dan Oropeza, who works as an engineer for Lockheed Martin.

Dan serves as Chauncey and Isaiah’s mentor for their PLTW coursework, guiding them through the design process, including setting up calendars and milestones for them to achieve. With a background in aerospace engineering, Dan can directly relate to the students.

“I know I can go home and tell my family, but the only one who really understands is Dan,” says Isaiah.  “He’s a really enthusiastic guy that makes you want to work hard because he brings a lot of joy to the workplace. It makes it fun to know that someone is proud of you.”

Dan gets a lot out of the relationship, too, including a renewed interest in the field of engineering.

“It revitalizes your enjoyment of math and science when you see students enjoying the learning process,” Dan says. “I don’t think any of us get to where we are or go through life on our own. We all have wonderful mentors and role models that help us push through and keep us motivated.”


Evan, Chris and Howard Floyd

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Howard Floyd believes engineering is born into you. And Howard knows a bit about the genetics of engineers. His grandfather, father, him and his son all chose engineering as their career field.

Today, Howard and his son, Chris, both work at a division of Lockheed Martin that focuses on space travel, communications and exploration.

When Howard was 11 years old, he remembers setting out to fix a broken clock radio at his childhood home. Despite warnings from his father about crossing two specific wires, curiosity got the better of him, and now Howard jokingly credits the resulting puff of smoke for swaying his career toward mechanical engineering, rather than electrical engineering.

Howard saw that same inquisitive nature in his son, and now that Chris has a two-year-old son, Evan, the whole family is noticing the behavioral traits of a young engineer. Evan received a child’s tool bench as a gift and it’s quickly become his favorite toy.

“When I’m fixing things around the house, Evan likes to follow me around with his plastic hammer and tell me, ‘I’m fixing it with you, daddy,’” Chris says. “That’s the kind of behavior that makes me think he might be destined to be an engineer.”

Although Howard and Chris both believe future engineers show their potential at a very early age, they acknowledge that mentorship plays a huge role in developing interests and skills.  In the case of the Floyd family, mentoring started early in the form of learning from your dad how to build soapbox cars and repairing the family automobile, but it also came in the form of exploring educational options. Chris said he enjoyed science and math classes in high school, but it wasn’t until he worked with his college professor on a project that he was sure that engineering was the right fit for him.

“Engineering is a way of thinking more than anything else,” Chris says. “I recommend being open to different engineering fields and experiencing as many disciplines as you can when you’re young to get a feel for what you’re good at and what you like.”


DOWNLOAD AN ENGINEERING ACTIVITY KIT

Would you like to become an engineer? Or, a mentor? The National Geographic Society, with support from Lockheed Martin, has created two exciting online games for middle school students—Challenge: Robots! and Challenge: Asteroids! Download the guides below to get started on your path to engineering.