Monday, March 18, 2019

Engineering for Eighth Graders

My association sponsors an outreach and education program for eighth graders. We call it the Fluid Power Action Challenge, and we've positioned it as it part of a series of programs to introduce the technology my association represents to young people and then to provide a pathway of activities through high school and college that brings them into careers in our industry.

We often talk about the difference between its perceived and actual value in strategy sessions with our leadership. We know it touches several thousand students a year, but other outcomes are hard to come by. Do any of those kids fall in love with fluid power and decide to pursue it as career as a result of their participation? We don't know, and frankly, we probably wouldn't like the answer if we could learn it.

But I'll confess, regardless of how many students the Action Challenge bends towards our industry, the program retains a special place in my heart. I helped launch it within our organization eleven years ago. In that first iteration, we had a total of twelve students, competing in three teams of four, who were only there because I had met a middle school teacher at one of the conferences I had attended and had pitched him hard on the idea. He called a friend and the two of them brought some of their students in for the experiment.

And, as I have told the story many times in the intervening years, I knew we had something special when, after the pizza lunch had been delivered, we had a hard time tearing the kids away from the task of building their fluid power machines so that they could eat. Fluid power was more compelling than pepperoni!

This past Friday, I attended the latest of these Action Challenge events. What was once twelve kids in a middle school classroom was now two hundred kids in a tech school gymnasium. And that event, while the largest in the state of Wisconsin, was only one of dozens that are being held around the country every year.

As the program has grown I've stepped away from it as its primary organizer -- that task now resting firmly in the hands of my staff and a dozen or more members of my association. But I still try to go to at least one such event every year and, if you watch the video I've tried to post below, maybe you'll understand why.

Eighth graders built this. They designed it and then built it, cutting the wooden supports and gluing them together, and positioning the plastic syringes in just the right places to create the movement they sought. You can see that their task is to pick up the wooden cylinder and place it on the platform -- repeatably, and as many times as possible in a two-minute competition.

And, of course, what makes the machine work is fluid power. Each syringe is connected to another by a thin, plastic tube, and each of those systems is filled with water. As each student presses in or pulls out on the syringe in their hands, the water, acting as a hydraulic fluid, transmits that action to the corresponding syringe attached to the machine, making it move in its precise, engineered direction. One movement clamps down on the cylinder, a second lifts it into the air, and a third swivels the whole machine so the cylinder can be placed on the platform.

I find it hypnotizing. Not just the graceful movement of the machine and the choreographed directions of the students, but also the forethought, smarts, and skill that went into the machine's design and function. Of course I hope these kids grow up to be fluid power engineers, but in a way, that's beside the point. Whatever it is they decide to do, something tells me they're going to excel at it, and that gives me hope for our future.

That's what I find more compelling than pepperoni pizza.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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