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It’s back to school for ORNL engineers during Engineers Week

ORNL engineer Ahmed Elatar explained his profession to students in Jessica Everitt’s 2nd grade class at Hardin Valley Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee, during Engineers Week. Credit: Jessica Everitt
ORNL engineer Ahmed Elatar explained his profession to students in Jessica Everitt’s 2nd grade class at Hardin Valley Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee, during Engineers Week. Credit: Jessica Everitt

Nine engineers from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory visited 10 elementary and middle school classrooms in three school districts during National Engineers Week, Feb. 21 to 24, 2023, describing and demonstrating the excitement of the engineering profession to more than 300 Tennessee students.

The school districts, Knox County Schools, Loudon County Schools, and Clinton City Schools, hosted ORNL engineers Ahmed Elatar, Jamie Finney, Tomas Grejtak, Carly Hansen, Simha Himakuntala, Karen Johnson, Karoly Magda, Mirko Musa, Robert Saetthre and Justin Weinmeister during the week.

Founded in 1951, National Engineers Week is dedicated to ensuring a future workforce of diverse and well-educated engineers by increasing the understanding of and interest in engineering and technology careers. ORNL has participated in this outreach initiative to local schools annually since 2020.

In addition to describing their work and careers, the engineers showed students projects that illustrated principles crucial to their craft. Some of the ORNL engineers had the students design and build foil boats to see how much weight in pennies they could hold. Others had them build structures out of index cards to see how much weight they could bear, while others provided their own activities.

This was the fourth year ORNL engineers have visited schools throughout the area, but it was the first in-person event since 2020. The past two years were accomplished virtually due to the COVID pandemic, said Alison Melton, outreach and education specialist in the ORNL Community Engagement office who organized the event.

“This may be their first opportunity to meet an engineer and talk to an engineer,” Melton said. “For elementary and middle school students, this is really that first exposure, to get them thinking about engineering as a potential career down the road.”

ORNL water resources engineers Carly Hansen and Mirko Musa, both in the Water Power Program, teamed up to deliver a presentation to middle-schoolers.

“We had a great visit and really enjoyed meeting with the class from Northwest Middle School,” Hansen said. “Mirko and I were able to give a short talk about our different paths to water resources engineering. We had really different motivations and interests that led us to study in the same field, but even now, we research different things. We wanted to make sure the students knew that engineering is really broad and there are so many things to explore.”

Musa agreed. “It was very fulfilling for us to see students engaged and interested in our stories. They asked a lot of interesting questions regarding our paths and our research. We also tried to convey the message that engineers basically apply the science fundamentals that they learn in school, like physics, math, and chemistry, to come up with solutions to problems that people experience in their daily life.”

As an example, the engineers had the students test buoyancy, by examining what makes an orange float or sink, then “put their creative problem-solving skills to work by making boats out of tin foil. The kids really impressed us by asking lots of questions and being so eager to participate,” Hansen said.

Musa added that the students had to determine how many coins the boats could hold before sinking. “They were solving the question: What is the best shape and design, while also having fun doing it,” he said. “The experiment was to solve the problem of moving people and goods on water, and they put what they learned about buoyancy through the orange experiment into action, just like an engineer would do.” — Lawrence Bernard

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit