Cummins’ traveling Lego project impacts young engineers
Cummins uses Legos to bring engineering to life for middle school students
“For a kid who has no role model, an experience like this can make a real difference.” – Richard Whitney, Cummins
By Christine Heinrichs
It started out as the kind of idea that makes managers ask, “You want to do what?” But building a model Cummins diesel engine out of 30,000 Legos turned out to be a great vehicle to show middle and high school kids what engineers do, in a way they can understand.
“Bringing students and Cummins engineers together to build the engine gets them all talking to each other,” says Richard Whitney, Cummins global recruiting brand leader. “They share all the things college students told us they wished they’d known before jumping into college to study engineering.”
Cummins Inc (Columbus, IN) designs, manufactures, distributes and services diesel engines and related technologies for trucks and other large equipment, and for specialized generator applications. About 44,000 people are employed at Cummins, which works through more than 600 distributors and 6,500 dealer locations in 190 countries. The company earned $1.66 billion on sales of $17.3 billion in 2012.
Company leaders realize that encouraging smart young people to pursue engineering careers is a given. Finding the best way to reach promising students is the challenge. Cummins held focus groups to learn from college students about their childhood experiences with engineering. Many of the students told recruiters, somewhat sheepishly, that they still “play” with Lego toy building bricks.
“The kids in the focus groups said that when they were younger, they thought engineering was math, math and more math,” says Whitney. “They wished they had known more of what you actually do as an engineer, and all the ways you can get support in school, through clubs and tutors. There was so much they didn’t know about.”
Creating the Lego model
Cummins launched the world’s largest diesel engine in November 2011, the QSK 95. With sixteen cylinders and ninety-five liters of displacement, it’s fourteen feet long, six feet wide and eight feet tall. Building a full-size model didn’t make sense, but Whitney enlisted the help of Lego enthusiasts at Brickworld to create a one-quarter- size model. Brickworld is an organization of Lego lovers that holds conventions for members to display their creations. Over three weekends and many evenings, Brickworld artists and engineers built the model.
How the engine moves...
Once built, they figured out how to take it apart so it could travel to other places and be rebuilt by middle and high school students, working next to engineers. Some of the sections, such as the turbochargers, the water cooler and the flywheel, are very complex, so they decided to glue them together and make them individual units. The twenty-eight fixed units plus the bricks to build fifty-six more modules can be shipped in three large crates to other sites.
In the fall of 2012, they went to Great Minds in STEM’s Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC) in Orlando, FL. Cummins brought along several engineers, and invited several HENAAC scholars, currently receiving college scholarships from Cummins, to spend three hours with local STEM students.
“There’s never a problem finding Cummins engineers who are willing to volunteer,” Whitney reports.
Whitney contacted Project Lead the Way (PLTW, www.pltw.org) to identify Orlando-area schools with STEM classes that would appreciate building a Lego model engine. PLTW put him in contact with Carol Unterreiner, Project Lead the Way instructor at Milwee Middle School (Longwood, FL), which houses an engineering magnet school. Milwee is open to all kids in the county, and a lottery fills the magnet school spaces. It’s a Title 1 school, where over 60 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. Milwee has won national awards and participates in competitions run by SECME (formerly the Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering, www.secme.org).
Most of her seventh and eighth graders came to the Disney Coronado Springs Resort convention center on the Thursday of the HENAAC conference. They received badges and tee shirts, and joined the engineers and college students who worked with them on the project. It was a long and exciting evening, well-documented in photos.
“It’s good for us to see them thinking and interacting with one another, working with a different face and a different situation,” she says.
Creating and collaborating
Each of the fifty-six modules arrives as a bag of Lego bricks and an instruction sheet. The Cummins engineers start building the engine with the three hollow blocks that make up the base, the engine block and the heads. Then they put the complex pieces on. Students circle around and help, preparing to build their additions to complete the engine.
“The engine starts to come together in about ten to fifteen minutes,” Whitney says. “Then we give them a bag of pieces and tell the teams to go build their sections.”
Focusing on a riveting project opens Lego lovers of all ages to working together. Middle school and high school students absorb information about what engineers do and how they got the education they need to do it, as they develop relationships. Kids who don’t necessarily get along with each other under ordinary circumstances work together to complete the project. This is another valuable learning experience that translates to the working world.
“They aren’t totally in their comfort zone,” Unterreiner says. “They have to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and learn to work with others.”
Watching kids who have been in her program for more than one year, she sees the changes in how they approach their studies and solve problems, Unterreiner says. They work cohesively as a group. Individuals become team players. They begin putting together the science, math, technology and writing skills that she’s teaching them.
Making the connection between business and school is another challenge. Unterreiner struggles to find businesses willing to extend their expertise into the classroom. Personal contacts often make the difference. Her husband once worked at Lockheed Martin, and that connection has brought the kids to the company’s eWeek celebration for several years, she reports. She’s enthusiastic about the new Cummins project.
“This is great,” says Unterreiner. “I wish more companies would do this kind of event so kids could listen to these people.”
Project Lead the Way was the connection for Cummins and Milwee. Whitney initiated the contact after reading a magazine article about PLTW. The nonprofit project provides STEM educational curricula for middle and high schools. It also trains teachers. Its materials are used in over 4,200 schools in all fifty states.
Engineering students help lead the cause
Whitney invited Cummins HENAAC scholars, all college engineering students, to help with the Lego project. Jorge Ramirez, a sophomore mechanical engineering major at the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), was one of the Cummins scholars who spent time with the kids. They were eager to talk with him. His decision to become an engineer was natural: his father’s an engineer, and he’s always been good in math and science. For the Milwee students who didn’t know any engineers, it was an opportunity to talk informally with someone involved in the field.
“The kids got really excited, and we had a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s a good idea to get kids involved in engineering when they are little.”
That’s what Whitney wants: for the engineers to share their personal experiences with the kids, to let them know they can succeed even if they struggle with academics. Unterreiner sees the advantages kids get from experiences with engineers who are doing the work.
“Maybe building a Lego engine isn’t totally real world, but to sit and talk with the engineers about what do they do on a typical day is,” she says.
HENAAC scholar Paulina Almada, a UTEP mechanical engineering junior, worked with two kids to build several parts. One was a whiz kid who didn’t need much help, and was the first to finish his piece. Afterwards, each student had a chance to locate the correct place for the parts he or she built. Although Almada wasn’t familiar with the engine, they worked through it together.
“As a kid you don’t really get much insight into how fun engineering can be,” she says. “It was an experience I’m sure those kids will remember.”
Almada also interviewed for a Cummins internship at the conference. She’ll spend summer 2013 at its headquarters.
She chose mechanical engineering as her specialty after visiting a research lab and seeing how devices could measure the force exerted on a treadmill by people with mobility disorders. That information helped diagnose their problems and direct effective treatment.
“That was the point when I realized I really wanted to do engineering,” she says. “All that you learn, you can apply to help somebody. I love that you can do something big with what you learn.”
Building the model gives the kids a chance to experience that excitement. They finish up by putting the final touches on the model, fitting the air intake and exhaust pipes together.
“They get a good sense of accomplishment,” says Whitney. “For a kid who has no role model, an experience like this can make a real difference.”
Unterreiner agrees that the impact has been a lasting one. She says, that even months later, “they are still wearing those tee shirts!”
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