Early exposure to the engineering fields can mean all the difference to high school students who are deciding what majors to pursue in college. That’s what inspired Miguel Ramirez, a math teacher at Galena Park High School, to bring 23 of his students on a field trip to the Structural Research Laboratory at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering.
Run by civil and environmental engineering professor Mina Dawood, the Structural Research Lab features state-of-the-art equipment and systems for testing various components of civil infrastructures, from the beams that hold up bridges to the concrete materials used to store nuclear fuel.
In addition to a tour of the laboratory, Dawood’s civil engineering graduate students conducted demonstrations for the high school students, including material level tests – tension tests that measure how much force is required to break steel or aluminum – and compression tests of concrete cylinders. The laboratory tests mimicked the same tests undergraduate students in the Structural Research Lab conduct on a regular basis.
Dawood said the tour emphasized connecting-the-dots between civil engineering concepts and how they are applied in the real world. UH graduate students explained how each test is applied in real-world scenarios, such as repairing bridges and structures, constructing critical infrastructure or measuring how quickly materials degrade over time.
William Hernandez, one of the Galena Park High students on the field trip, described the opportunity to learn more about the laboratory tests as “truly eye opening.”
"Ordinary civilians do not understand the great detail that is put into our nation’s infrastructure. All these details are put to the test at this research laboratory. From testing different materials such as concrete, aluminum and steel, we were able to understand which material performed better when put to a task,” he said.
Galena Park High student Alex Valero echoed these sentiments, saying, “Everything was explained in great detail, applied to real world situations, and we were given hands-on activities that allowed us to engage. It was a great learning experience that allowed me to understand my passion for this career.”
Ramirez said that many of his students were able to envision a future for themselves in the engineering and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields after their field trip to UH.
“I saw my students astounded with the fact that not all problems in engineering are solved using complex mathematics, and that with simple concepts and calculations they can find important information,” Ramirez said.
Eduardo Hernandez, one of the Galena Park High students who participated in the field trip, said his introduction to engineering at UH was life-changing.
"My visit to the UH Civil Engineering Lab was both memorable and trajectory-changing. I've envisioned myself to be a humanities-focused student, but after engaging in various conversations with personnel, participating in hands-on-experiments and witnessing the convivial environment at the lab, I see no barrier between me and a career in structural engineering,” he said.
The UH engineering graduate students also spoke candidly with the visitors about student life in the Cullen College, professional opportunities in the civil and environmental engineering fields and what it’s like to go through the rigorous engineering programs at UH.
"This was a fantastic experience for my students,” Ramirez said. “They saw that engineering is an awesome discipline and a real possibility for their professional lives."
View photos from the Galena Park High School field trip to the UH Structural Research Lab at https://www.flickr.com/photos/cullencollege/albums/72157683716653164