Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Lehigh’s can-do spirit inspires middle school students

A student from Broughal Middle School observes Sai Lu Mon Aung ’10 gingerly place a can of fruit cocktail on his team's Canffel Tower.

Ana Alexandrescu ’10 carefully aligned the edge of her ruler with a stack of 100-calorie fruit cocktail cans and measured the stack’s distance to the edge of the thin board on which it rested. In the wings, a couple of Broughal Middle School students held more cans, waiting to add them to their “Canffel Tower.”

Laura Ricles ’09 explained her team’s precautions: “When we were practicing, we were less precise, and our tower fell down.”

But this time, the 400-can model of the Eiffel Tower stood straight and tall. It was one of four structures built by teams of Lehigh’s Rossin Junior Fellows (RJF) and Broughal Middle School students as part of Canstruction, held Friday afternoon.

For the next couple of weeks, the Canffel Tower; the Flintstone’s dinosaur, Dino; SpongeBob Squarepants, and a three-flavored banana split will be on display in the lobby of Packard Laboratory, where they were built.

On March 27, the creations will be dismantled and the approximately 3,500 cans donated to a local food bank.

A full engineering project

Canstruction “was our activity to promote engineering in younger kids, practice engineering and do community service work,” says Sam Kirkpatrick, ’08, a graduate student in electrical engineering and the activities coordinator for the Rossin Junior Fellows (RJFs). This select group of engineering majors mentor first-year engineers and serve as ambassadors to prospective engineering students.

Although Lehigh University’s RJFs are the exclusive sponsors of Canstruction in the Lehigh Valley, more than 100 groups across the United States and Canada participate in the annual charity event, which was founded by the Society for Design Administration in association with the American Institute of Architects 17 years ago.

Kirkpatrick organized the event and managed the student teams, after learning of the non-profit foundation through Gerard Lennon, associate dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

One reason Lennon recommended Canstruction is because it requires students to participate in the entire engineering process.

“That’s why it’s such a great project. The students had to design, plan and execute those plans,” Lennon says. “It’s a full engineering project.”

After suggesting the idea, Lennon assumed the role of consultant and left the implementation and planning to Kirkpatrick and the other RJFs.

Encouraging science and engineering as career paths

The Canffel Tower and other clever creations will be on display in the lobby of Packard Laboratory until March 27.

The Lehigh students met with Broughal Middle School’s eighth-grade science class three times prior to the event. In October, Kirkpatrick and other RJFs introduced the project to the students.

A month later they returned and formed teams of five or six RJFs with a nearly equal number of middle school students. Then four teams decided on a structure they would build—a process that required teamwork and compromise, say Alexandrescu, Ricles and Sai Lu Mon Aung ’10.

“We went from a cow to a dragon, both sitting, to the Eiffel Tower,” Alexandrescu recalls.

Taji-nae Curtis, 13, says her team selected on their design cooperatively. “We all picked the banana split in our team. It was collaboration with five of us plus five Lehigh students.”

She and Esmeralda Avila, 13, helped build the “Ice cream against hunger,” which used 1,230 cans of Hanover Potatoes, Busch Baked Beans and fruit cocktail.

After the designs were chosen, RJFs and other Lehigh students determined the cans’ exact number, type and placement by using a Computer Aided Design (CAD) program. Two weeks before the event, the RJFs showed the three-dimensional designs to the middle school students, who provided feedback.

On Friday, they built their creations under the curious eyes of many visitors from the community, as well as Lehigh students, staff and faculty, including David Wu, dean of the engineering college.

“The Canstruction project gives Lehigh students the opportunity to bring their enthusiasm for engineering to the community, allowing younger students to experience the excitement in engineering. Through various activities such as this, we help Lehigh students to engage the community with their services, and encourage middle schoolers to consider science and engineering as a career path,” Wu says.

It seems to be working. Broughal student Ian Sell, 14, says he might apply to Lehigh as an engineering student in four years, partly because of his involvement in Canstruction.

The cans were initially donated by several organizations, including Lehigh University, and purchased at a special discount from the local food store, Aharts. Final creations will be judged by Lennon and Kirkpatrick, as well as a group of professional civil engineers. The team with the best structure will be awarded plaques.

Once the displays are dismantled, the cans will be donated to the South Bethlehem Neighborhood Center. Daniel Steim, a program director at the center, attended the event, and says that the center’s food pantry rarely receives such a large donation. This type of project also aligns with the center’s aim to help children in South Bethlehem succeed, he says.

“I think it’s really valuable that the kids are involved in this process,” he says. “It’s amazing to see Lehigh and Broughal students connect in this way. It’s very beautiful. We’re very grateful.”

--Becky Straw

Photos by Douglas Benedict

Posted on Monday, March 16, 2009

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