As Part of Engineers Week, Perot Museum Challenges Young Girls to Build Bridges

Students from The Hockaday School and St. Philip’s School and Community Center worked to create the strongest bridge out of household materials.

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“Five minutes left,” yelled a contest moderator at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science as young girls frantically raced to assemble the final touches on their bridges made out of upcycled materials.

For the past 15 minutes, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders from Dallas-based the Hockaday School and St. Philip’s School and Community Center had collaborated to construct a freestanding bridge. Ten students from each school were mixed together to form two teams — The Excellent Engineers and The Four Es.

Parents, teachers, and photographers surrounded the girls as they pieced together duct tape, cardboard, string, rubber bands, and wooden dowel rods into a structure that would support the most weight.  

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Students piece together their bridges from duct tape, cardboard, string, rubber bands, and wooden dowel rods. [Photo: JerSean Golatt/Perot Museum of Nature and Science]

The challenge held Tuesday morning was part of Engineers Week at the Perot Museum, a weeklong series of interactive events to explore the profession. It coincides with National Engineers Week, which runs through Feb. 24. 

The museum is dedicated to expanding the influence of science, technology, engineering, and math amongst young children in order to ignite their imaginations and interest in STEM-related fields. 

“One of the things that we know about people who go into careers in STEM is that the single greatest predictor of that career choice is how much you like science between the ages of 6 years old and 11 years old,” said Dr. Linda Abraham-Silver, Perot Museum CEO. 

“I’m hoping that these little girls will find the inspiration to do whatever they want to do to change the world.” 

Dr. Menzer Pehlivan

Dr. Menzer Pehlivan, a geotechnical engineer specializing in earthquake engineering, moderated the event and gave tidbits of advice to the girls as they worked.

Initially planning to become an actress, Pehlivan’s world changed forever at age 13 when a massive earthquake devastated her hometown in Turkey. The catastrophe inspired her to dedicate her life toward developing safe infrastructure. Now, aside from working as an engineer on critical infrastructure projects at Jacobs in Seattle, Pehlivan works with young children, and encourages the pursuit of science-based careers, especially young girls. 

“I’m hoping that these little girls will find the inspiration to do whatever they want to do to change the world. And if they were to choose science, technology, engineering, or math they shouldn’t feel like they are not enough. They are no less than anybody else,” Pehlivan said. 

Pehlivan is featured in the 3D film Dream Big, which runs through May 24 at the Perot Museum. The educational film narrated by Jeff Bridges celebrates engineers and the ways they create better lives for people across the globe.

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People snap photographs of The Excellent Engineers’ bridge. [Photo: JerSean Golatt/Perot Museum of Nature and Science]

On Tuesday, while the two student teams worked to assemble their bridges, Ashlyn Morgan, a representative of the American Society of Civil Engineers walked around and gave advice to the girls regarding the tension, compression, joing connections, beams, and balance. Morgan is a strong advocator for the pursuit of engineering and science among young girls. She credits the encouragement of early role models in her life for her successful engineering career. 

“Follow your passion, and if someone tells you no, but you really want to do it, go for it,” Morgan said she advises young girls.

Peggy Cagle, Hockaday’s middle school science curriculum coordinator, strives to incorporate empowering messages such as these into the everyday lessons at the all-girl school.

“Girls want to create, they want to solve problems, they have great ideas, and that’s what makes a great engineer,” Cagle said.

Cagle acknowledges that STEM careers are often viewed as male-dominated professions, and she hopes the integrated curriculum at Hockaday will help breakdown these mental barriers for girls. From fifth through eighth grade, the school incorporates physics, engineering, environmental science, and chemistry into classroom learning.

“I’m just really grateful our girls had this opportunity to work with another school, to learn a different perspective, and to take science out of the classroom,” Cagle said. 

“Science helps with your everyday life, and me learning that personally helps with my everyday life.” 

Jadyn Livings

Over a microphone, Pehlivan counted down the final seconds of the construction period. The girls cheered and proudly displayed their finished bridges.

Two moderators placed weights on the bridges simultaneously as the girls anxiously held their breaths. After several tense minutes, The Four Es bridge collapsed meaning The Excellent Engineers team claimed the victory. 

While there was only one clear winner of the challenge, both teams walked away with enhanced critical thinking and problem solving skills. 

“My favorite part [of the bridge building challenge] was learning to look at everybody and see how they’re all different and working differently … Science helps with your everyday life, and me learning that personally helps with my everyday life. I want to be a biochemist when I grow up.” said Jadyn Livings, a sixth grader at St. Philip’s School. 

Livings said her passion for science stems from her teachers and classes.

“Bridge building starts with imagination, what they want to build, and here they make it a reality.” 

Dr. Menzer Pehlivan

“I wasn’t really interested in science [three years ago], but St. Philip’s gave me the advantage of learning about it,” Livings said.

After the bridge building challenge ended, the Perot Museum screened Dream Big. Through a partnership with the United Engineering Foundation, the American Society of Civil Engineers is trying to put a copy of Dream Big into every public school in the nation. 

“Bridge building starts with imagination, what they want to build, and here they make it a reality,” Pehlivan said.

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Members of The Excellent Engineers team next to their winning bridge design. [Photo: JerSean Golatt/Perot Museum of Nature and Science]

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