Amy Shaw PhD Candidate Vanderbilt University

The Power of Sandcastles

PostedThursday, March 30, 2017 at 2:51 PM

Earlier this week I spent time, as an NAE Fellow, speaking to a cafeteria full of elementary school students about how engineering and art are used together to craft just about everything they see around them. We started by making connections between their lives as 3rd graders at Parklawn Elementary School and the engineering design process.

My fellow NAE Fellow asked the attentive students, “How many of you like to make paper airplanes?” Hands shot up! He continued, “How about building sandcastles?” More excited hands were raised. Then he threw the kids a curve ball: “Well, if you’ve ever built a paper airplane or a sandcastle, that’s a creative design process. That’s engineering.” There was a mixture of stifled giggling and piqued interest among the kids.

We had four guest speakers for the day’s classes—3 engineers and 1 small business owner—to provide the girls and boys some insight into potential career choices. The three engineers in our group—Albert, Stephanie, and me—told the kids about creating colorful prosthetic arms that empower the children who wear them, constructing buildings to be both functional and beautiful for the people who will use them, and operating renewable energy hydropower dams to generate electricity while protecting river ecosystems for wildlife and people to enjoy. Katie, the owner of a small business, shared another perspective: the tools she uses as a professional photographer, such as cameras and photo editing software, would not exist without the help of engineers. Engineering is an important part of the art she creates, and through her photography she captures images of engineering projects in action.

Since I didn’t start this piece by introducing myself, I’ll end it that way. My name is Amy Shaw and I’m a Mirzayan Fellow at the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, DC. After the fellowship is over, I’ll return to my “real life” as a PhD student in environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. I am often asked what led me to choose engineering as a career. There are the obvious reasons of course: I’ve always enjoyed math and science (especially math), engineering jobs are plentiful and pay well, and there is a high level of regard awarded to someone when they say, “I’m an engineer.” But those aren’t the only reasons.

A real passion for something requires more than prestige and pay. I chose engineering because I wanted to make a tangible and lasting impact on my community. I wanted to be part of the process of taking something from an idea all the way to reality. And as a civil engineer I love the idea that the work I do could have a positive impact on many people’s lives for decades, even generations.

I hope the Parklawn Elementary students will remember those reasons to become an engineer, and that they learned engineering is much more than the application of math and science.

Digging deep in my family’s photo albums I found a picture of my Dad and my much younger self playing in the sandbox he built in the backyard of my childhood home. Perhaps this is a glimpse of my first engineering mission?

Amy Shaw and Father

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  • Damian  Peter

    Posted 3 months and 4 days ago

    A saw can use one or two blades to cut through wood. The length of the blade determines the depth of the cut. In the guide of Replacing a saw's blade requires removing dirt and rust from inside each tooth on the current bevel side while inserting new teeth on an opposite bevel side into position.
  • Cary  Sneider

    Posted 4 years and 9 months ago

    Thanks for your fabulous blog, Amy! When I looked at the picture of you and your dad I remembered that I also loved building sand castles with all sorts of roads, ramps, and bridges. My mother told me that I should think about becoming a civil engineer—someone who designs buildings and bridges. For the next 30 years I thought that was the only kind of engineer that there was, so I missed out on the opportunity to really explore my options. Happily I pursued my interests in science, so that now I can teach engineering; but by visiting that classroom and sharing the many different types of things that engineers do, you and your fellow Fellows opened many more doors for these students.
  • Linda  Kekelis

    Posted 4 years and 10 months ago

    It’s not enough to just like engineering. For kids to imagine a future in engineering they need help to connect the dots between fun activities and careers. Role models like Amy and her team do just that! What I found especially exciting about Amy’s outreach is how it inspired kids in third grade. Learning about what engineering can do and who does engineering at such a young age can help reduce stereotypes and create positive ideas about a future in engineering. Can you imagine the dinner time conversations these students might have had after meeting Amy and learning about the many ways that engineers make the world a better place. Amy, thanks for sharing this experience and for making time to connect with the next generation of engineers.
    • Amy  Shaw

      Posted 4 years and 10 months ago

      Linda, thanks for the kind words. The students at Parklawn were very engaged in the conversation - I even saw a few jotting down notes! I hope, as you mentioned, these kinds of meetings lead to even more conversations about engineering with their family, friends, and teachers.