City Year

Posted: 1/2/2008

This past October and November of 2007, Civiltech Engineering, Inc. teamed with the City Year core staff at the North Kenwood Oakland middle school, located in the Kenwood neighborhood, near the University of Chicago and Hyde Park. The purpose of the sessions was to provide a group of students with a snapshot of engineering.

City Year Chicago is a foundation that brings together young adults, ages 17 to 24, for a year of full-time citizen service, civic leadership, and social entrepreneurship. The members help to provide literacy tutoring during the school day to children, as well as safe, organized out-of-school activities. The group of students at North Kenwood Oakland middle school is a part of City Year’s after school program called Project Heroes. The purpose of the Project Heroes program is to encourage and promote community service among the students throughout the school year while also providing academic support. The group consisted of approximately twenty 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students along with seven City Year staff members. Civiltech held four sessions within the Project Heroes program, aimed at creating awareness of civil engineering infrastructure projects, as well as promoting civil engineering as an obtainable profession.

The first session, led by Civiltech engineer Chris Wolff, was a slide show that featured extraordinary projects such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, and the Sears Tower. With the showing of each slide, the students were asked how they thought civil engineers were involved in the design and development of the projects. The responses and exchange of questions and answers were amazing, as the students were very engaged in the session. They asked question after question about the civil engineering profession and all of the projects shown, prompting one student to ask about Navy Pier, “How does it not fall into the water?” Of the session, Chris remarked “Introducing the kids to engineering and hearing and seeing how excited they were about it was a very memorable experience.”

During the slideshow, the students were shown a picture of the Moveable Bridge network over the Chicago River, to which one student asked “What happens if the guy working up in the bridge tower falls asleep, how will the boats get through?” Everyone laughed, but during the second session the following week the student had his question answered when the group toured the Lake Street Bridge over the Chicago River. Representatives of the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) provided a tour of the bridge tower, as well as “the pit” beneath that contains all the gears and parts necessary for the bridge to operate. When inside the tower, the students were shown the “dead man switch.” This switch is a pedal on the floor that activates in the event something would happen to the bridge operator. Discussions about the Lake Street Bridge were also combined with conversation on the conditions of Chicago River. The group discussed everything from engineers changing the water-flow direction of the Chicago River to the environmental cleanup efforts currently ongoing. One important element conveyed to the students was the importance of not littering. Michelle Woods, who is in charge of the City’s river projects, explained that trash thrown on the street in the Loop area can get blown into the river and even end up inside the gear systems of the moveable bridges.

The third session found the students split into four groups and given the task of building a “straw bridge”, under the guidance of Civiltech engineers Mike Folkening and Brandon Bogenschutz and the City Year staff. Each group developed a straw bridge with the intent of transporting a baseball over an 18-inch wide space. The students were engaged and determined to get the baseball across. After all groups had successfully completed their mission, a discussion was held with the students speaking about the challenges of the exercise. Upon seeing the students’ excitement and devotion to the assignment, Brandon said, “It was rewarding to see the students apply engineering concepts through the hands-on lesson.”

For the fourth and final session, Civiltech engineer Brian Carroll led a field trip to the “Animal Bridge” located along South Lake Shore Drive, just north of 67th Street. Since Brian was involved throughout the construction process of the entire South Lake Shore Drive project, he was able to provide a detailed and engaging walking tour of the structure. The original bridge with a stone facade was built shortly after the World’s Fair in 1904. Since the City desired to maintain the true look and feel of the original structure, each stone was carefully removed, cleaned, and reinstalled as part of the new bridge construction. Part of the restoration included carving new replacement “hippo” heads. The students quickly picked up on the level of complexity and had great questions involving the difficulties of constructing over water and the use of coffer dams.

Considering that many of the students had no previous awareness of the roles and responsibilities of civil engineers, this was a wonderful opportunity to expose them to the engineering profession. The learning sessions were so successful this past fall that City Year and Civiltech will be teaming up again later this year to present the engineering field to another group of students in the Project Heroes program. Civiltech hopes to be able to showcase such incredible civil engineering feats as the Emergency Central Command Center and the Jardine Water Filtration Plant.
Special thanks to CDOT staff for their help.