Engineering isn’t something middle school students usually embrace. Reading books about how municipalities work can be boring even to kids who express somewhat of an interest in the subject.
That’s where Paul Porell comes in. For the last four years, Scottsdale’s traffic engineering director has teamed up with student groups and teachers who take part in the Future City Competition, a nationwide program that gives students a chance to use hands-on learning models and have fun with what otherwise might be a dull, tough-to-learn subject.
Porell recently traveled to Washington, D.C. with teacher Mark Wingert and three students from Ira Murphy Elementary School in Peoria for the national Future City Competition. The group placed sixth overall among 31 participating schools. More than 30,000 students from about 1,000 schools participated at regional, state and the national levels this school year.
Porell said the program, in its 14th year, was created to inspire seventh- and eighthgrade students about engineering. The hope is that some of them will take a closer look at the subject and consider it as a career.
“The competition involves getting students to recognize the role of engineering in city planning,” Porell said. “Students have to design a future city, using a Sim City (computer) program. They have to design the infrastructure. They have to make sure there’s low pollution and good transportation. There are defined elements they have to include. They bring it all together.”
Porell breaks into a wide smile when he talks about the students and their work. It’s immediately clear that, as a mentor working with student groups of three and a teacher on the projects, he gets as much out of watching kids succeed as they do succeeding.
Suddenly, engineering isn’t dull for most of the students. Children see reasons for how and why city infrastructure is built. They understand that everything has a purpose. Porell’s job experience rubs off and the students begin to take as much pride in their own work.
It wasn’t always that way at Ira Murphy.
“We had one engineer come in for the program and refuse to come back until the kids could talk intelligently about the subject,” said Mark Wingert, a seventh-grade language arts teach at the school. “Then Paul came in.”
Wingert said Porell relates well to students, possibly because he has a teenage daughter. Porell listens and doesn’t have a condescending attitude. He cares about kids, the future and what engineering means to Scottsdale.
“I had no clue what engineering was about when this all started,” said eighthgrader Daisy Nunez. “When Mr. Porell came in, he made it simple for us. Now, I’m considering a career in engineering. I’m really curious about it.”
That’s reward enough for Porell. “They learn a lot about engineering,” he said. “They begin to understand what an impact engineering has on everything around them. It helps them, it helps my work in Scottsdale.”