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Engineering for Kids brings basics of science to North Shore youth

Engineering for Kids students look on as module cars they built are raced in a classroom in Atwater School Thursday in Shorewood.

Engineering for Kids students look on as module cars they built are raced in a classroom in Atwater School Thursday in Shorewood. Photo By Peter Zuzga

April 2, 2014

Shorewood — You say lip gloss. LaRhonda Bennett says chemical engineering.

You say bridge. Bennett says civil engineering.

You say roller coaster, and Bennett says mechanical engineering.

"You go to the amusement park, and you ride," Bennett, a former Milwaukee Public Schools teacher and administrator, says. "You don't think about what goes on behind the scenes."

The science of what goes on behind the scenes of everyday life is what Bennett attempts to teach at Engineering for Kids, an extracurricular science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program. Bennett founded the first Milwaukee-area franchise of the international brand last August. The program's "home," according to Bennett, is the Dunwood Center in Fox Point, though Engineering for Kids has expanded into Shorewood and Whitefish Bay in the months since its launch.

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Squeals of delight and laughter rang off the walls of an Atwater Elementary classroom last week as Bennett and several program staffers led a group of youngsters through the basics of mechanical engineering and rocketry, playfully disguised through the use of compressed-air and balloon-powered dragster cars.

The kids assembled and decorated the little wooden cars — one student put an action figure on the back of his, much to the detriment of his fledgling career in drag racing — before launching them down a track with a rush of compressed air. Afterward, the kids strapped balloons to the dragsters to see how they would drive with a different source of air.

Though it looks like a simple exercise, Bennett says, the building blocks are there: force, mass, acceleration — basic concepts which are easy to learn but difficult to master when it comes to studying physics. And while a balloon car whooshing across the floor won't get you into NASA, Bennett says the experience is important to expose kids to and create comfort with the STEM fields, which can be intimidating to youngsters.

"It's kids saying, 'I can do that,'" Bennett says.

Such was the case at a recent birthday party Engineering for Kids entertained. Bennett recalls watching the kids build and launch straw and balloon rockets, a basic lesson in aerospace engineering. At first the kids launched straight up. Then they went laterally. In no time they worked out how to adjust the trajectory to achieve maximum flight time and distance.

"You could see them connecting the dots — to space," Bennett says.

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