McGehee’s Family Engineering Night
I am frantically gathering pom-poms from under the tables
A kid just glued my wooden ruler to her duct taped covered prototype, and another girl is squealing with excitement watching an 8-foot high trebuchet launch another water balloon. Where and when is all this taking place? It’s McGehee’s annual Family Engineering Night, or FEN, scheduled for Thursday, February 9th, from 5-7 p.m at the Louise S. McGehee School. This has been a much-loved event for McGehee students of all ages since 2015. During Family Engineering Night, our entire campus is taken over by roving scientists engaging in nearly twenty different activities designed for students and parents alike. When talking about FEN to the uninitiated, I always describe it as slightly organized chaos! Because this is the first time we’ve been able to host FEN since 2019, we thought it only fitting to choose “Bringing Back Chaos” as our theme!
Why do we host this annual night of chaos?
Well, there are many important reasons. First, it’s a chance for McGehee families to see what we do so well every day—engage our students in the active, creative process of learning. FEN is filled with exciting hands-on activities and design challenges, but it also gives students lots of choices and ownership over their creations. The year I spent most of the evening gathering pom poms from under the tables, I was in charge of the catapult building station. Students had different materials to choose from—cardboard, paper, wood, and plastic—to create a unique catapult that could successfully launch a pom pom. I will never forget looking over and seeing a student hot gluing together my nice wooden rulers that had been placed on the table for measuring. But this is the magic of FEN: giving students the materials and space to create their own unique designs. That night the younger students also had the opportunity to watch Upper School students launch water balloons from a full-sized trebuchet and catapult that they had built in the weeks leading up to FEN. This was a really special experience for the younger students to see what was possible and how their small design could eventually be scaled up to an 8-foot tall trebuchet. The connections made between our younger and older students at FEN – and the visibility of teenage girls engaging in STEM activities – are what we’re all about at McGehee.
Another reason to host this special night is that it is a chance for our entire community to focus on the importance and many applications of engineering in our everyday lives. While students from Little Gate through McGehee Middle School have dedicated STEAM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with an arts-enhanced approach) classes, engineering is the thread that ties these classes together. FEN really showcases the many ways in which engineers contribute to society and solve problems. Another year during FEN, I spent most of the evening water-logged on the back patio behind our Dining Hall helping my Chemistry II students demonstrate the many ways engineering has impacted New Orleans, whether that be through levees surrounding the city, systems for delivering clean water, and the newly built water towers. These are very concrete ways that everyone can appreciate the importance of engineering. Other past FEN projects have included Mardi Gras floats, boat design competitions, musical instruments, coding lessons, and fabric making. These diverse projects show students the many ways in which engineers contribute to society, and they serve to demystify engineering as an exclusive discipline. We want McGehee students to understand that the engineering design process is a way of problem solving that can be applied to many different fields within and outside of the sciences.
While I do not have a degree in engineering (but I do have one in Chemistry!), it is a discipline that informed my own academic experiences and one that I try to bring to my students in the classroom today. While completing research for my doctorate degree at Princeton, I focused on understanding specific interactions between proteins related to cell death, and while important, this seemed like such a narrow focus for my work. I was interested in gaining a bigger picture understanding of cancer, so I chose to complete my post-doctoral research in biological engineering instead of chemistry. Biological engineering applies the techniques of engineering – quantitative measurements, computational modeling, and design principles – to biological processes and living systems. And, most importantly, it seeks to produce biological-based applications that meet society’s needs. This specific motivation to find solutions is what attracted me to engineering, and it is the big-picture, systems approach of engineering that is going to allow McGehee girls to find solutions to society’s greatest problems. While the FEN event may appear as a night of chaos and fun and flying pom poms, it is actually a time dedicated to developing an engineering mindset for everyone in our community and inspiring our students to be life-long problem solvers.
If you have a child in grades Pre-K through 6, your family is welcome to attend FEN night at McGehee. You will need to register here to attend.
Schedule a tour for Welcome Wednesday, January 25th at 8:30 am or schedule a private tour by emailing [email protected].
About the author
Dr. Catherine Cresson is a science educator, mother of two, and proud wife of the “ice cream man,” David Bergeron of The Creole Creamery. A native of New Orleans, she currently lives Uptown with her family: her daughter Zoey is a 9th grader at McGehee and her son Spencer is a 2nd grader at Country Day. She is a graduate of Tulane University and completed her graduate work in chemistry at Princeton University along with her postdoctoral research in biological engineering at MIT. Catherine has been at McGehee for 13 years and is currently head of the Department of Science. She is passionate about improving science education, supporting all of her McGehee students, and drinking iced coffee. When she is not lighting things on fire in the chemistry lab, she loves hiking and traveling especially to southern Utah.