Earlier this month a local engineering team headed to Los Angeles County to make their case for overpass bridge improvements that would protect drivers in earthquakes.
Marcus Quan and Richard Homan stood before a full house of engineers and other officials and shared their idea for a cable that would run the length of a freeway bridge and connect to a pin on each end holding up a traffic crossing arm. If the bridge broke in an earthquake, the arm would descend and traffic would stop, helping to save lives.
David Chan, a senior civil engineer with the L.A. County Department of Public Works, said the presentation was a well-put together package, with the design details, maintenance information and cost estimates he likes to see.
But one thing did make it unusual: the designers are students at Brassfield Elementary School in North Raleigh.
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Marcus, 9, is a fourth-grader. Richard, 10, is a fifth-grader. They may not technically be engineers, but they’ve spent the past few months researching, designing and presenting their bridge idea as part of the First Lego League Competition.
The competition has two parts, a robotics game and a project component. The latter asks students to solve a problem and present their solution. This year’s theme was "Nature’s Fury," which meant students had to identify a problem that could happen in a natural disaster and create a solution that helps people prepare, stay safe or rebuild .
Marcus and Richard began their research when school started this fall. As they researched, they came across the story of Clarence W. Dean, an L.A. motorcycle police officer who died when he accidentally rode off a bridge that had collapsed during the Northridge Earthquake 20 years ago. Dean was reporting to work after being awakened by the quake, according to the media reports from the time.
Marcus and Richard learned of other similar accidents and knew they had found the problem they wanted to solve. They aim to help prevent similar accidents.
"We’d heard that many lives had been taken by this," said Marcus.
The boys came up with their solution and sent a letter to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. They outlined their design and closed with a simple request: "Please tell us if you like our idea."
The letter made its way to Gail Farber, the county’s director of public works, who invited them to present their idea.
At first, the boys’ parents thought they would set up a phone call or a Skype date. But then they decided to make the trip to California.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Richard’s mother, Carolyn Homan. She coached the presentation portion of the competition.
They made their presentation in L.A. County on Jan. 9 to a dozen people.
Chan said it was encouraging to see young students excited about engineering amid concerns about whether enough students are interested in science, technology and mathematics fields.
"It’s refreshing," he said.
Marcus’s father, Fredy Quan is an engineer, and he leads the school’s robotics club. He likes that the Lego challenge required the boys to do the work themselves, to talk with adults about their project, and to understand that things don’t always go exactly the way you hope – in engineering or in life.
"It’s stuff that most people don’t get to practice," he said.
Just days after their presentation, the boys entered the state Lego competition. While they hadn’t heard back from L.A. when they competed at regionals, this time they could tell the judges all about their trip.
In the end, they took home first prize for their project in the 9- to 14-year-old age bracket.
The boys are proud of their trophies and excited to have made the trip to L.A. After all, explained Marcus, they’re a little bit famous now. But most of all, they just had a good time working together on their project, added Richard.
"It’s fun," he said.