Teaching the World Around Us: A Salvadorian Experience
This article by Justin Den Herder originally appeared in the magazine of Structural Engineers Association of New York. Justin works at Robert Silman Associates/Structural Engineers.
The Salvadori Educational Center began in 1987 through the efforts of Mario Salvadori. His goal was to improve the math and science skills of children and young adults by teaching them fundamental principals of Structural Engineering and Architecture. Today, Mario’s legacy lives on through the efforts of a dedicated staff, generous volunteerism, and a multitude of children, eager to learn.
The first time I walked through the doors of the Bronxdale Community Center, I was completely unaware of the profound impact that the next ten weeks would have upon me. I arrived in class and was confronted with a roomful of over twenty beaming 2nd and 3rd graders. Immediately, as was the case in throughout every after-school session, I was bombarded with indulgent interrogations spawned from the depths of their infinitely curious minds. The flurry of passionate inquiries ranged from my thoughts on whether Dwayne Wade was better than Kobe Bryant, to where I had grown up, to whether or not they could go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Sheepishly I stood there, failing to answer them adequately, feeling much like a British Prime Minister thrust before an inquisitive parliament without sufficient preparation.
I drew a large, lopsided version of the Empire State Building on posterboard. When I asked them what the drawing was, the children’s responses ranged from wedding cake to rocket ship to building. I hastily told them that this was the Empire State Building and used that image as a stepping-stone to explain what architects and engineers are and how they work together to design buildings. When the students found out that I also was a “real, live engineer” their faces became awestruck with amazement and respect. Salvadori Teacher Ms. Susan Chea and I explained that with the knowledge of math and science, occupations in Architecture or Engineering were more than just pipedreams, they were entirely attainable for them.
Weeks flew by and as they did, their faces became more recognizable, more meaningful to me. There was Cookie, a thin-boned, spunky boy who taught me dance moves and how to pick up women. There was Elijah, who knew the answer to every question and could school me in basketball. There was Chelsea, who greeted me with hugs and whose older brother went to college at Penn State. For 10 weeks these children became the apex of my week. They may never fully realize how touched I was by their innocent faces and bulging eyes, their little water balloon hearts which were full and ready to burst with the purest love, even for a stranger.
Together with the children Ms. Susan and I created beams and frames and buildings made of paper. We taught them how to draw to scale and how to differentiate between a beam and a column, between tension and compression. By the end of the lesson plan the students were empowered with the confidence that they could learn whatever they applied their minds to learn.
The last day of class Ms. Susan brought a piñata, the kind that with the pull of a string, the bottom falls out, spilling ten pounds of candy. I stood on a metal folding chair and held out the piñata. Two lucky, well-behaved students were elected to be string-pullers. On the count of three they yanked and much to the chagrin of twenty-three humongous pairs of anxious eyes, the bottom did not fall out and no candy fell to the floor. Dejected heads hung down and as they did so, I ripped the cardboard cover off the top of the piñata. As the program director of the community center walked into the room, I was in the midst of laying candy machine gun fire upon my favorite regiment of students, who pounced on their treasure with smiles as wide as the equator. The director shook her head in a tight-lipped smile. I handed her a watermelon lollipop and a miniature Snickers bar and we called it even.
Euphorically I waltzed through the glass-paned doors of Bronxdale Community Center for the last time that spring, a Skittle-eating champion of twenty-three hearts.