Partnership in Education: CEU Providence builds bridges with aspiring engineers



Written by Lt. Lawrence Tormey

Think of a popular 21st century TV game show and finish the next sentence: “Who wants to be… a________?!” Now replace the missing word ‘Millionaire’ with the word ‘Engineer’ and you’ll basically find an equivalent level of enthusiasm amongst a small enclave of about 50 inner-city ninth and 10-grade students from two public high schools in Providence, Rhode Island.

As a result, the Providence Career and Technical Academy and Mount Pleasant High School have been teaming up with Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Providence through its Partnership in Education initiatives for the past two years to build and break popsicle stick bridges as well as design & build waterborne robots in an effort to provide these students with experiential learning opportunities that inspire their budding interests in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.



In a thank you letter to the unit, ninth-grader Jordan Silva wrote, “…(the robotics competition) was the best experience I’ve had all year and I am 90 percent sure where I am going to be when I graduate and it is the Coast Guard!”

The two schools started their four-year pre-engineering elective cohorts just a few years ago in hopes that their STEM-enthused students will have the technical foundation they need to succeed in a more rigorous four-year college-level technical curriculum or otherwise be employable upon high school graduation. Students in this program have already built 3-D printers, learned computer programming code and are working towards CAD modeling certifications.

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Luke Driver, the Providence Schools district director of career and technical education, likens it to the German method of secondary education where specialized training can land graduates jobs immediately as skilled laborers in their country’s workforce. He views the Coast Guard as a potential future employer.

Below are two initiatives that Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Providence has initiated to help make this a reality.

Bridge Building: The popsicle stick bridge building tradition dates back about 20 years at this point having started soon after the CEU moved to Warwick, Rhode Island from Governor’s Island in the early 1990s. This year’s competition was held last Wednesday at CEUP with six 3-person teams from the 9th grade pre-engineering cohort at MPHS. Equipped with engineering drawings, an identical set of materials, and a seasoned Coast Guard engineering mentor, each team’s goal was to build a bridge that held the most amount of weight relative to the bridge’s own weight before critical failure occurred and the bridge broke in half. This year’s top three teams were awarded Coast Guard gym bags and unit ball caps courtesy of the Society of American Military Engineers Narragansett Bay Post. Bridges exceeded expectations so much this year that there was literally not enough weight on hand (including an impromptu 26.4 lb case of water) to break this year’s winning 7.3 ounce bridge which held over 160 lbs without even showing any signs of failure.

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Robotics: March’s one-day robotics design & build competition experience known as AROW (Academy Robotics on the Water) includes a critical partnership with the Coast Guard Academy. Three schools fielded 8 separate student teams comprised of 4-6 students, a cadet, and a CEUP mentor. Teams then constructed remote-controlled robotic boats to complete simulated Coast Guard missions in a 10 by 10 pool before the day’s end. Missions include:

  • oil spill recovery (simulated by floating ping pong balls)
  • setting miniature buoys
  • derailing an drug runner (simulated by a marble moving back and forth across the pool on a pendulum)
  • saving the survivors of a sunken fishing vessel, and
  • recovering a miniature helicopter.

Students are exposed to many engineering concepts & disciplines through AROW including:

  • Gear Ratios & Gear Slippage on a propulsion system (Mechanical)
  • Foundations (Civil)
  • Stability & Maneuverability (Naval)
  • Signal Transmitting (Electrical)
  • Design Process (Design, Build, Test, iterate)
  • Teamwork
  • System Redundancy
  • Value Decision Tradeoffs (which missions are most critical?)


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Both competitions more than doubled in size this year and teams from other local schools had to be turned away due to limited materials, space, and cost in each case.

As I met with the students to complete debriefings and catalog lessons learned, I witnessed a transition amongst many of the students who at first appeared seemingly uninterested during event pre-briefings but who were then eagerly jumping in to provide input to the hot wash conversations. Observing those transitions alone I guess you could say that I felt “like a million bucks” but then I remembered that I was part of something far more meaningful that that: a Coast Guard Engineering Unit.



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