So, Todd the Trauma Surgeon just finished warming the hearts of Miss Thompson’s classroom with his inspiring presentation Please Don’t Call Me A Hero, Although I Did Rescue a Litter of Puppies from a Burning Building and Perform CPR on Each of Them Afterwards, Which Objectively Seems like a Pretty Heroic Thing to Do. You’re still wiping the tears from your eyes – and to be fair, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after he described how the pups licked him in gratitude with their precious little tongues – when reality comes crashing down. You realize you’re presenting next.
You, who accepted this opportunity to represent the entire Geotechnical Engineering profession to your college friend’s fourth grade class and thought a discussion of sandcastle apparent cohesion was going to cut it.
You, who, during the coffee and donuts portion of the morning, was making small talk about “this crazy weather” when you clearly should have been googling “Coolest Geotechnical Facts for Kids” (Did you mean “Ten Reasons You’ll Never Be as Cool as Super-Todd?”)
You aren’t panicking, however. What’s the worst that could happen? You give an uninspiring presentation that poisons a whole room of clever children against the engineering profession forever? And those kids tell all their friends to steer clear of the STEM field altogether because it’s dreadfully boring? And two generations later, the bridges all collapse and the entire country floods and the newscasters say it all could have been prevented if the adults of the world had just encouraged more young people to pursue engineering?
Okay, maybe now you are panicking. Just a little. But there is hope. Because at this very moment you conveniently remember you’ve got a folded-up piece of paper in your wallet that a strange young man gave you at Geo-Congress 2020. It’s titled Career Day Advice for Geotechnical Engineers. As the applause from Todd’s tremendous presentation begins to subside, you read from this implausibly helpful document.
You’re probably about to present after a really moving speech from a humanitarian lawyer who does triathlons or an astronaut who rescues baby penguins. Somehow this keeps happening to us geotechs. Anyway, don’t fret because I developed a three-step solution to win Career Day. It works for most grade levels, and I guarantee kids will line up after class to ask for your autographed business card.
Step #1: Open with a joke. This really loosens up the crowd and raises the energy levels. Here are some tried and true examples:
- “You kids won’t believe this, but the most exciting part of my day is when I’m looking at boring logs!”
- “What did the very overconsolidated soil say when the external load offered him payment in the form of his preconsolidation stress? I won’t settle for less!”
- “Why did the geometry-lover become a civil engineer? Because we have Mohr Circles!” (Get it? “MORE” circles??)
Now that you’ve got the kids rolling on the floor laughing, it’s time to move on to Step 2 –
You stop reading because whoever handed you this “advice” in Minneapolis should, in your freshly formed opinion, neither represent nor practice the geotechnical engineering profession. Well, there goes your last shred of hope.
As you walk to the front of the room, confidence thoroughly shaken and enthusiasm flagging, you perceive that time itself is slowing down… Stepping slowly, you begin to wonder why you’re not a doctor, or a lawyer, or an astronaut. Surrounded by so many curious young minds in the classroom, you reflect on your own childhood. When you would spend hours playing in the backyard and digging up dirt with your family’s Cocker Spaniel. You’d tell your mystified parents that you were looking for dinosaur bones. When the call for dinner came, you’d stomp the mud off your sneakers, wash your hands, and think about the brachiosaurus that you’d finally unearth tomorrow.
You got older and realized most of the dinosaur bones had already been found and your curiosity about what was underground didn’t have to be relegated to things from the distant past. You watched the excavation for your neighbor’s new swimming pool and asked if you could have some of the orange-brown dirt to build moats, mounds, and clay-castles – many miles from the beach. You looked around at the trees and flowers and wondered in which directions their roots grew. You read the labels on bags of potting soil to see just what special ingredients made plants grow.
You went to college, gambling that civil engineering was the right major for you because you understood, in your financial position, that you needed to graduate into gainful employment. You took a soil mechanics class and were amazed to find a topic that totally engaged you. You daydreamed that you would be so wise as to one day classify soil by just by looking at it. Or understand cation exchange capacity. When your classmates told you this stuff just wasn’t clicking, you would spend entire nights leading test reviews because you enjoyed how the drained and undrained conditions made sense to you and you wanted to share that feeling.
You feel time speeding back up again. You look around the room and see all those meaningful memories reflected to you in the eyes of these fourth-grade students who spend each day learning, playing, and discovering what fills them with curiosity. You realize, finally, that it’s not your job to make them want to become geotechnical engineers. They don’t need to be told the future of our global infrastructure depends on their math test scores. All you need to tell them - what they deserve to hear from every adult in this room - is that the world is full of wonders and while there are many possible career paths, the most important job is the one that makes your soul grow.
So, you ask about their favorite classes and games and what they want to do when they grow up. Then you tell them what you were doing when you were their age, and how you never imagined the path you would pursue. You talk about paying attention to your interests to help find your passion. Then you think about telling just one joke.
But you don’t.
Because they’re listening and smiling and you’re not panicking anymore.