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Engineers inspire future inventors in Crystal Lake

CRYSTAL LAKE – A group of local engineers returned to the classroom this week to teach students at Hannah Beardsley Middle School about opportunities in the industry.

The school's third annual "Discover Engineering Week" program, included visits from engineers at Northrop Grumman, Motorola Mobility, Baxter & Woodman, General Kinematics, Cideas Inc., and Sargent & Lundy.

The program is designed to spark interest in engineering and encourage students to take courses in science, technology, math, and engineering.

On Monday, a group of engineers from Northrop Grumman and Motorola Mobility joined eighth-grade students and teachers in the classroom to talk about engineering and present students with a problem-solving project.

Students got a crash course in the career opportunities available for engineers on Tuesday as they attended talks by local professionals.

Not all engineers spend their days on mathematical equations, the professionals said. Students were clearly intrigued by the possibilities.

"Certain engineers design stuff and then they give their product design to another team of engineers who try to break it," said teacher Jennifer Drozt, a former Baxter Healthcare engineer. "There's whole groups of engineers whose job it is to break stuff. You get paid to break stuff."

Drozt, a second-year teacher, told students she left the field after discovering her passion for teaching about engineering. She also gave students an easy-to-understand guide to plastic molding using Play-Doh to define terms such as extrusion, injection modeling, and thermoforming.

Louis Vannatta of Crystal Lake, an engineer with Motorola Mobility, gave groups of students a box of cell phones and had them line the phones up in order of oldest to newest.

The newest smartphones, he said, were about 100,000 times more complex than the earliest hand-held cellular phones.

Vannatta, who holds more than 40 patents in the United States, contributed to most of the cell phones students sorted through on Tuesday. He stressed the importance of education, including math, for future engineers.

"Engineers are problem solvers, we are curious, we have a bit of detective in us," he said. "And we can think in the abstract."

Students also heard from Harry Harman, a civil engineer at Baxter & Woodman in Crystal Lake. Harman has designed more than 80 water treatment plants in the last three decades, including the plants serving Crystal Lake, Cary, Fox River Grove, Lakewood, and Lakemoor.

Like others, Harman said he wanted to help future generations find a place in a growing industry with a looming shortage of professionals.

"Over the next decade there are going to be more engineering jobs than there are engineers," he said.

Mike Littrell, president of Cideas Inc., a rapid-prototyping and 3D printing firm in Crystal Lake, displayed a host of plastic creations – from models of famous works of art to remote controlled cars and Hollywood props – that his company has designed for companies around the world.

A number of challenges designed to get students to think like engineers will round out the week-long program, said Mary Warren, the eighth-grade science teacher at Hannah Beardsley Middle School who spearheaded the effort.

Students will have to tackle a series of small-scale engineering problems such as building a machine that can kick a ball, a wind-powered device that can lift a load, and a bridge, among others.

In addition to professional engineers, students will get information from Community High School District 155 teachers about Project Lead the Way, a national program intended to get high school students to take engineering courses for college credit.

The larger high school district, which draws students from Districts 3, 26, 46 and 47, has seen a 28 percent increase in enrollment in Project Lead the Way courses over the last three years, Warren said.

"We've tried to improve the program every year," Warren said. "[The goal] is to inspire kids to enroll in pre-engineering courses. That's where the jobs are."

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