Firm gives middle schoolers taste of real engineering life
Maureen Nerenbaum, a senior project engineer with Columbia Engineering in Duluth, works with a team of eighth-graders from Coleman Middle School. The firm hosted the students for a day to bring their classroom lessons to life.
By H.M. Cauley
For the AJC


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Just a quarter mile from the STEAM classrooms at Coleman Middle School, the 45 staff members of the Columbia Engineering firm put into daily use the concepts of land planning and architecture. Two weeks ago, the two came together to put theory into practice and to showcase how textbook ideas can transform into actual projects.

For the second year, Columbia hosted Coleman eighth-graders for a day of activities designed to highlight the practical applications of what the youngsters are learning. The idea grew from Columbia’s marketing assistant, Linda Cerjan, and her interest in reaching out to the surrounding community.

“I wanted to find a way to provide opportunities for students to have access to professional engineers to gain insight on that career,” said Cerjan. “The students could start thinking about choices and planning.”

The original idea was to host a Q&A session over lunch, but the project evolved into an entire day based around a challenge.

It began in the classroom where 16 students formed companies, and came up with team logos and designs.

At the Columbia offices, they attended a mock client meeting and were charged with designing a solution for a site plan.

“The landscape architect gave an overview of land planning and topography so they could look at a survey and understand it,” said Cerjan. “They learned about stormwater runoff and drainage. Then they broke into their firms and started talking about how to layout their building on that piece of land.”

By the end of the day, teams had come up with a design solution that was printed and presented to a panel of engineers for assessment.

The winning team won gift cards, and everyone was then let in on a surprise.

“What they didn’t realize until the end of the day was that they were given the specs for the actual site of our building and land,” said Cerjan. “The plans were brought out to show them what our design looked like.”

The engineers, who expressed amazement at the students’ confidence and abilities, hope the day raised a new level of awareness for the next generation.

“Now, as they go through a community like Duluth, they’ll give greater thought to what’s involved in creating it,” said Cerjan. “They’ll look at office buildings and sites like ours and have insights as to what it takes to have these.”

Coleman Engineering teacher LaShandia Hill said that was precisely the goal of having the kids work with the engineers.

“Now they’re better able to see things we’re talking about in the classroom in a real-world setting,” she said.

“They also know they’re designing with the exact programs real engineers use.”

And students didn’t wait to get back to the classroom to make those connections, she added.

“As we were walking out of the building, they started commenting about buildings along Buford Highway,” she said. “They took notice that you need driveways of a certain distance for different types of trucks and vehicles, that what goes into a parking lot is more than just laying asphalt and having parking spaces. It was all hitting home.”

Schools in the Duluth cluster will showcase a variety of student projects May 3 with the first STEAM/STEM Expo at Coleman Middle and Duluth High.

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Each week we look at programs, projects and successful endeavors at area schools, from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H.M. Cauley at or 770-744-3042.