Diversity/Careers in Engineering & Information Technology



April/May 2013

Diversity/Careers April/May 2013

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Mentors at work

HNTB Corporation shares time and talent with urban youth

The PREP-KC program invites students from Kansas City to HNTB to learn about career possibilities

January 31 was not a typical workday at the HNTB Corporation offices in Kansas City, MO. The architecture, engineering, planning and construction firm opened its doors to forty-six public high school students from J.C. Harmon High School, a Kansas City, KS public school. The visit was coordinated by the Partnership for Regional Educational Preparation-Kansas City (PREP-KC) program.

PREP-KC, founded in 2006, is a nonprofit organization that helps students in six area low-income school districts improve academic achievement and prepare for college and careers through math benchmarking, worksite and college campus visits, and early college opportunities. Initially funded with a start-up grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PREP-KC is now supported by grants and donations from organizations and individuals.

“Area businesses and post-secondary institutions can play a critical role in helping students in Kansas City’s urban school districts become better prepared for college and careers,” says Beth McCarthy, senior program associate for PREP-KC. “When a company or educational organization shares time and talent with Kansas City’s urban students, students benefit, but so does the company, by creating a pipeline of better prepared employees. PREP-KC workforce liaisons serve as a single point of contact for the business community, making it easier to get involved and make a meaningful impact.”

PREP-KC partner school districts are Kansas City, KS; Kansas City, MO; and the districts of Center, Grandview, Independence, and Hickman Mills. They serve 63,000 students at thirteen high schools. A variety of industries have partnered with PREP-KC, including engineering, health sciences, business and finance, and arts and communications.

“So far, during the 2012-13 school year, PREP-KC has engaged 260 professionals from 130 companies in seventy experiences,” says McCarthy. “Through this work, PREP-KC is on track to serve over 4,000 students with customized college and career readiness experiences.”

When students from J.C. Harmon High School toured HNTB, they broke up into groups and visited each department. HNTB employees volunteered to conduct workshops about career pathways in infrastructure, marketing, architecture and engineering. Among the HNTB employee participants were Natalie McCombs, senior bridge project engineer, and Alejandro Ogata, senior project designer.

Engineer poses challenge to students
“I like the idea of being able to help people who appreciate it,” says McCombs, whose specialty is arch bridge design. She has been with HNTB since 1996. McCombs participated when the company hosted students from PREP-KC’s partner districts last year and was excited to participate again. She and her colleagues conducted an engineering session in which they presented the students with a problem to solve involving the layout of their school.

“We gave them the scenario that a section of the land on their school property is now going to be used for rental housing. The project would take away their football and soccer fields. Then we tried to coach them through the disciplines of civil engineering to plan for those changes, as we would in our daily jobs,” McCombs said. “We asked them, ‘Now that this land is taken away, where are you going to relocate the playing fields? How can you consolidate space?’ We thought we could get them engaged in the process by asking them to re-imagine a location they were familiar with.”

McCombs and the other facilitators introduced the students to concepts like structural support, roadway and traffic patterns, and water resources. “We also got them to consider other parts of engineering, like getting permits and determining environmental impacts. For instance, I told them they might not be able to remove certain trees to put in a soccer field because there might be endangered species of birds living in them,” McCombs says. “It really challenged them to use their creativity.”

McCombs was impressed with the students’ responses. Some students suggested that a taller building could bring more students to the district, increasing the student body and government support dollars for the school. “I was just floored by the thought process. It was quite encouraging,” she says.

During the workshop, McCombs shared one of her own experiences with the students. “I was involved in the design of a two-mile-long bridge structure to replace one that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Without the bridge, two neighboring communities were separated by an hour-long detour instead of a five-minute drive. It was a wonderful feeling when the bridge was finished. We were able to help rebuild the communities.” Engineers, she told them, can do a lot of good in the real world.

Of the forty-six students who took the tour in January, just eight were girls. “I tried to emphasize to them that you can do whatever you put your mind to,” McCombs says.

HNTB architect shares his story
Alejandro Ogata has been an architect with HNTB since 2001. His work has included the design of structures such as convention centers, airports, and other civic and federal projects. Over the years, he has volunteered his time for mentoring and educational programs. So when he heard about HNTB’s involvement with PREP-KC, he wanted to help.

“When you work with economically disadvantaged children, it’s eye-opening to realize that some of them think that college is beyond their abilities,” he says. “The reality is they are very smart. They just need the encouragement to let them know college is a possibility for them and we expect them to do great things.”

During the architecture workshop, Ogata and a coworker showed the students a current sports stadium design project undertaken by the company. The facilitators walked them through what it takes to become an architect, from courses they can take in high school to the process of applying for scholarships. Ogata brought his own bachelors and masters degree diplomas to the session and passed them around. “My hope was that letting them touch the diplomas, making education tangible, would make it more real to them,” he says.

Between 30 and 40 percent of the students taking the tour that day appeared to be Hispanic, Ogata estimates. “I was born in Peru, so I talked to them about coming to the United States from a different culture and acclimating,” he says. “I think a few of them related to that.”

Ogata hopes that HNTB will continue to host PREP-KC schools regularly. “You may say one thing you think is inconsequential but it may give somebody that extra nudge to go to college.”

Students respond
According to the PREP-KC coordinators, nearly every student expressed a strong interest in pursuing the careers they learned about during the tour. “I will work as hard as I can to attend college and get my bachelors degree,” said one Harmon student. “I enjoyed the marketing and engineering activities because they gave us a taste of what real-life careers are truly like,” said another. “I will try harder in school so I can be ready when I go to college,” a third student promised.

HNTB is expected to host students from another local high school later this year. McCarthy looks forward to this event and its potential impact on inner-city youth. She appreciates the support of John Prutsman, president of business services at HNTB. “Thanks to the leadership of John Prutsman and his team, HNTB has been a tremendous partner to PREP-KC by inspiring students to develop their career aspirations and giving them the motivation to stay focused in school,” she says.


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