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Oakland Students Are Engineers for a Day

They aren’t old enough to drive across a bridge, but that didn’t deter Lafayette Elementary School fourth and fifth-graders from donning hard hats and safety vests and learning how to build one.

Throughout March 2014, Bay Bridge public information officer Victor Gauthier visited these students’ classrooms and led a hands-on unit that covered the construction of the new seismically-safe East Span and the earthquake that destroyed part of its predecessor. The unit culminated in a field trip for each class to the Bay Bridge public information office, where the engineers-in-training built miniature bridges and explored the models outside the office.

The effort to expose the mostly low-income West Oakland students to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is a joint initiative between the school, Caltrans and Oakland Bay Area Links.

“It’s vital to allow kids to see STEM careers in action,” said Leah Robinson-Leach, chief Caltrans public information officer. “The bridge is in their backyard and this might be their only access to it. Millions of people experience it and we'd be remiss if we didn't take the opportunity to expose kids in underserved communities."

During one class's field trip on March 25, the kids listened rapt as Gauthier regaled them with Bay Bridge troll lore and listed all the parts and pieces that comprise the world’s largest self-anchored suspension span. Upon learning that the mile-long suspension cable is made up of 17,399 wires, one awestruck student remarked, “Even Superman couldn’t move that!”

The visitors were abuzz with questions, asking how the bridge columns were placed in the water and how the skyway was assembled. An impressed Gauthier said, “You guys are asking questions that I get from adult architects. You’re future engineers.” (Albeit engineers who also had plenty of questions about bungee-jumping off of the span.)

John Morgan, teacher to Lafayette’s fourth and fifth-graders, said the interactive program and field trip were hits.

“Getting outside and actually touching and feeling – children remember things like this,” he said.

According to the Lafayette principal, the students are already talking about studying science and becoming engineers, Robinson-Leach said.

Fifth grader Ronysha Reed endorsed the experience as well. 

“It was very perfect,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein

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