Geering Up the Next Generation

Mini-Eng Camp Week 1 – Brittany helping students map out their town

When we were young, teachers, parents and friends would ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up. A difficult question when your biggest worry is whether or not your parents would be serving something ‘weird’ for dinner. But for some of us, we had a pretty good idea of what we loved to do – drawing pictures, writing stories, playing hockey or, for some, building things out of blocks, LEGO, popsicle sticks or anything else we could find to try and recreate the world we saw around us.

Urban Systems is full of professionals that spent their childhoods trying to understand the built environment, going on to become the engineers, designers and planners that are working with communities to make them vibrant places to live, work and play. For the last few years, that work has been extending beyond working solely with clients, as some of our consultants are increasingly volunteering their time with local schools to provide educational workshops and pass on their knowledge and passion to the next generation.

Brittany Tuttle, Yolanda Moser and Jasmine Smith volunteered with three groups of 7 to 10-year-olds this summer, spending a couple of hours with each and teaching them a little more about what it’s like to be a planner and an engineer and what kinds of work they get to do. After receiving an alumni email from the UBC-Okanagan Geering Up team, Yolanda was excited to participate, bringing on Brittany and later Jasmine – a student Co-op – to develop some sessions for their S.T.E.M. based summer camps. The experience would prove to be not only a learning experience for the children, but also the ladies from our Kelowna branch.

Designing a Vibrant Community

Brittany and Yolanda presenting to the students of the Mini-Eng Camp

For the first two sessions, Brittany and Yolanda presented to the children in the Mini-Eng program, which focuses on challenging the children to use the principles of civil, mechanical and electrical engineering and their imaginations to design, build and create. They talked about their professions – Yolanda explaining her work as an engineer who works on many highway projects, and Brittany’s work as a planner and how that involves looking at how different areas of the city are put together to create a functional space.

“They were so smart and understood everything we were telling them,” shares Yolanda. They also found it amusing when the children would raise their hand to ask a question only to tell them their parents or family members are also engineers and planners.

Working off a similar session run by members of the Calgary branch, the ladies then provided the children with a simple map showing a river and some mountains, along with cut outs of buildings representing different land uses, and the told them to use the materials to create a city based on the information the two had presented. “It was amazing because they actually took into consideration what we said when designing their cities,” Yolanda muses.

“At first I was worried they weren’t learning anything throughout the exercise,” Brittany admits. As they observed the groups, she noticed one was placing colourful pompoms all over the map. When she asked them to explain what they were doing, their response revealed they were focused on more than just the planning of their city. “They explained to me that the pompoms were balloons that got lost in the air after a big Canada Day party.” While a funny anecdote at the time, Brittany recognizes that the children were already grasping what it meant to design a vibrant community, which, for these particular children, was also called ‘Fun Town’.

When all the groups were finished and they reviewed the students’ creations, Brittany and Yolanda asked if they had learned anything through the exercise, and the response was a resounding ‘yes’. Even at their young ages, the students had gained practical knowledge, with one child noting, “It’s actually really hard to figure out where things should go because you shouldn’t just put a garbage dump next to a park or where someone lives,” and another saying they had learned that, “You need to have layers on a highway so when lots of cars drive on them they don’t just sink into the road”. And while they still have a lot to learn, the ladies were pleased to know they had absorbed some of the details they shared about their professions that would hopefully last for years to come.

Combining Art, Science and Feminine Ingenuity

Students in the S.T.E.A.M. Camp configuring their map for the Ozobots

Along with the Mini-Eng program, which is offered to both girls and boys, the Geering Up camps also offer a session just for girls called S.T.E.A.M – a combination of science, technology, engineering, arts and maths in a welcoming space to encourage girls to discover and explore their love of science and engineering. As in the previous session, Brittany described her work, this time accompanied by Jasmine who talked about what it was like to study to become an Engineer-in-Training. But instead of planning a city, the students were tasked with combining art, programing and thinking about travel sequences to create a free-flowing traffic plan.

Using Ozobots – small robots that behave according to specific sequences and patterns – the students used patterns and colours to mark out the travel paths for the two robots, ensuring they could move along the map without colliding. The session was so interactive that after all the groups had finished their tests, the coordinators from Geering Up took their own turns trying to figure out the exercise. Of course, the younger students enjoyed watching their teachers attempt to figure out something they had all mastered.

Brittany noted that the dynamic of the co-ed groups was quite different from the girls-only groups, commenting that the atmosphere was a little more attentive when they needed to be, and they were keen to ask more questions. “I think the biggest thing I noticed is there was always one person in each group who would take charge of the exercise,” Jasmine says, reflecting on the experience. From her observations, it was clear which of the girls were more excited about what they were doing, but did point out that this was not the same for all groups, with many of them taking turns so each would have an opportunity to configure a route.

“Both the Mini-Eng and S.T.E.A.M. activities became an opportunity to explain to the children what it’s like in the real world and working in teams,” states Brittany. She views the opportunity as good practice for when they’re older, noting how often the consultants at Urban Systems collaborate across areas of practice on any given project, with engineers and planners working hand in hand, just as she, Yolanda and Jasmine were.

The Ozobots in action

“I would have appreciated a program like this.”

Now that the camps are complete, they are all proud to have had the opportunity to work with the children and pass on some of their knowledge and experience. When reflecting on what was available to her as a child, Brittany is excited that programs like this exist now; “I like doing this kind of stuff, and I think myself as a kid, I would have really appreciated a program like this. Especially as a girl – it’s great to see other women in the field and know that it is a possible career for them.”

For Yolanda, getting to show the kids projects that she or colleagues have worked on was rewarding, seeing them make the connection between the person, the job title, and the physical city, both in Kelowna and further afield. “I showed them one of the highway projects I was working on in Toronto, and asked the kids if anyone had been to Toronto. One of the kids asked if it was highway 401, and it was awesome that they could recognize it.”

Brittany and Yolanda are both eager to continue to volunteer with programs like Geering Up, but for Jasmine, this experience helped fulfill a wish she has had throughout her studies at UBC in Vancouver. “At UBC, I was asked to participate in Geering Up camps, but I’ve just never been able to because of the way it aligned with my school schedule,” she explains. “I was so happy when Yolanda asked me to participate, and I’m hoping when I get back to school, I can help out with more programs throughout the year.”

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