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Public Roads - July/August 2016

July/August 2016
Issue No:
Vol. 80 No. 1
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Following in Mom's and Dad's Footsteps

by Dan Wolfe

Each year, FHWA employees bring in their children for a fun day of scientific discovery in hopes of encouraging them to consider a STEM career.


Nearly 50 children learned about transportation technologies during hands-on activities at TFHRC’s Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day in April. Here, supervised by Deb Curtis, a transportation research engineer, William Snoots discovers that traffic signal heads are lighter and much bigger than they look from the street.


“What do you want to be when you grow up?” That’s the big question adults put to most youngsters, possibly hundreds of times. Many children are influenced by the occupations of their parents. Employees at the Federal Highway Administration hope to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers--and perhaps start them on the road to a career in transportation.

Held annually on the fourth Thursday in April, Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day is a national educational program that encourages parents to bring their children in for a day. As in past years, FHWA’s Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) participated again in 2016, with nearly 50 children touring the center and participating in numerous hands-on activities designed to inspire their inner engineers.

“Turner-Fairbank wants to reach out to students in the area and encourage them to study STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] subjects,” says Michael Trentacoste, FHWA associate administrator for research, development, and technology and the director of TFHRC. “Bringing our own kids to the center to see the high-tech things their folks do every day is really at the heart of it all.”


(L–R) Kaitlyn Anderson, Mary Curtis, and Meghan and Genevieve Dreger add beans to melted chocolate to create an asphalt-like mixture.


The mixtures were frozen to create core samples that the children strength-tested in the lab.


Volker Fessmann, a program manager for vehicle-to-infrastructure communications for safety at TFHRC, coordinates the event each year. “We ask each of our labs to come up with something fun with a scientific background that the kids can do,” Fessmann says. “We try to do new things each year so it’s unpredictable, but there are always favorites like the crash test.”

Unfortunately, this year rainy weather prevented the children from witnessing a live crash test, but in years past, watching the Federal Outdoor Impact Lab conduct these tests has always been a memorable experience. When the children do get to see a live crash test, it’s for science, not for show. Each year, TFHRC’s Office of Safety Research and Development considers the date of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day when scheduling its research.

Even without a crash test, this year’s attendees experienced a full day of hands-on activities related to science and engineering.

Chocolate Pavement And Spaghetti Bridges

The scientists in the Bituminous Mixtures Laboratory of the Office of Infrastructure Research and Development came up with a sweet way to simulate the mixing of asphalt. Using a mixture of different-sized beans to simulate aggregate and melted chocolate to simulate binder, the kids mixed their own chocolate “asphalt,” poured it into molds that mimicked core samples, and froze it. At the end of the day, these frozen cores of chocolate and beans, not unlike real-world asphalt cores, were subjected to crushing forces to see which mixture withstood the destructive forces best.

Benjamin Graybeal, leader of the Bridge Engineering Research Team at TFHRC, demonstrated a real-time load test of a concrete beam using the weight of an elephant as an equivalent unit of measure placed on the beam. It took three elephants’ worth of weight to break the beam, all caught on camera and relayed remotely on a wide screen from the Structures Lab to the assembled children. (No actual elephants were used in conducting this experiment!)

Graybeal also guided the children through the construction and testing of bridge designs using spaghetti for beams and marshmallows to connect them. Nine teams came up with imaginative and creative designs as they competed to see which completed bridge would hold the most weight.

High-Tech Fun

The children also got up-close experiences with some of TFHRC’s high-tech equipment. Students observed how a 3–D printer works and used the equipment to make a trapezoidal frame as part of a smartphone hologram. In the Chemistry Lab, Terry Arnold, TFHRC’s senior research chemist, solved the “Case of the Broken Tunnel” using the center’s scanning electron microscope to see the damaging effects of corrosion at the smallest level. And, making the best of the rainy day, the Saxton Transportation Operations Laboratory brought the big guns indoors for the kids. In this case, a radar gun measured the speed of a well-kicked soccer ball inside the lab’s test garage.


Desmond Mahoney tests the strength of his spaghetti and marshmallow bridge structure using pennies, one at a time, as the load.


Colby Sullivan, Jr., (left) and Terrell McMillan (right) inspect a smartphone hologram operated by Nathan Tsou, a contractor at the J. Sterling Jones Hydraulics Research Laboratory at TFHRC.


Morgan Riley puts her soccer skills to the test against a radar speed gun.


After explaining how crash prevention technology can keep people safe during a crash, researchers with TFHRC’s Saxton Lab used an inflatable “balloon car” to demonstrate what happens without that technology.


One of the outdoor activities that did occur was the Saxton Lab’s demonstration of crash safety technology. Using an inflatable car as a target, Osman D. Altan, a research transportation specialist, demonstrated how front crash prevention technology on today’s high-tech cars keeps people safe. The real crowd pleaser came when Altan turned off the prevention technology and allowed the test vehicle to bump into the inflatable car--sending it flying. The demonstration impressed upon the children the important role these new technologies can play in keeping drivers safe.

Imagining and Inspiring the Future

Addressing the future of transportation, David Kuehn, director of FHWA’s Exploratory Advanced Research Program, asked the children to imagine how transportation might look in the years to come and record their ideas through creative drawings. His presentation, titled “Transportation 1966–2016–2066,” reviewed some of the major developments of the past that have already improved safety for drivers and passengers and described projected advances in transportation technology.


TFHRC Extends STEM Outreach


At the Nysmith School in 2016, Taylor Lochrane, Deb Curtis, and Chris Melson configure a display of FHWA’s connected vehicle technology for those attending the STEM Symposium.


FHWA researchers volunteered to staff exhibits at Nysmith School’s STEM Symposium in 2015.

Noting the enthusiasm of the children who attended events during previous years’ Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day, leaders at TFHRC began to increase outreach to students through activities both onsite at FHWA and at local schools.

Beginning in 2014, TFHRC conducted its first annual 3-day Transportation Summer Mini-Camp with six participants, all high school juniors and seniors or college freshmen. The participants studied transportation research in the areas of safety, operations, and infrastructure through discussions with TFHRC scientists and hands-on activities in many of the center’s more than 20 laboratories. That inaugural camp coincidentally occurred during a visit and tour of TFHRC by President Barack Obama. The students had front-row seats for the President’s speech and got to shake hands with him afterwards.

The Transportation Summer Mini-Camp grew to 18 students in 2015 and, in 2016, it is in its third year.

Further expanding TFHRC’s STEM outreach, volunteers from the center supervise exhibits at the annual STEM Symposium held at the Nysmith School for the Gifted in Herndon, VA. This all-day event attracts more than 2,500 students from kindergarten through high school, their parents, and teachers who have an interest in STEM subjects. TFHRC’s team of researchers demonstrated the high-tech research being conducted by FHWA and promoted the career potential of researchers with Federal agencies.

Tomorrow’s Women in Science and Technology, a student-run STEM outreach organization at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, VA, held its annual Techstravaganza, a 1-day STEM activity fair for elementary and middle school students. A team of volunteers from TFHRC attended and encouraged students from diverse backgrounds to nurture interest in STEM subjects.

TFHRC will continue to participate in other STEM activities to help inform and encourage young minds interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to pursue careers as highway researchers.


Each year, the team at TFHRC reaches out to young people interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to encourage the great engineering minds of tomorrow. Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day helps provide the children of the TFHRC team with many potential answers to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”


Lyllie Huffman admires her certificate of attendance after the day’s activities. Many schools will excuse or not mark students absent if they provide proof of educational activities while away from school for the day.


Dan Wolfe is a marketing and communications specialist at TFHRC, where he engages in communication and outreach activities. He is a graduate of Valley Forge Military Academy & College, Westminster College in Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Information School.

For more information, contact Dan Wolfe at 202–493–3186 or