AIKEN, S.C. – In 2003, seventh-grader Thomas Nail sat in the front row of his classroom at Davidson Fine Arts in Augusta, Ga., while his teacher introduced engineers from the Savannah River Site (SRS).
“The engineers first quizzed us on basic science questions,” said Nail, now a mechanical engineer for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS), the site’s management and operations contractor. “Then it got really interesting when they brought out a hovercraft and let us each take turns riding it. For some reason that hovercraft always stuck with me.”
Constructed of plywood, a leaf blower, duct tape and other items, the hovercraft represented how air pressure can translate into lifting power, just like a basketball filled with air bounces.
The demonstration inspired Nail and his friends to build their own hovercraft and become more involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) competitions.
After obtaining a degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Southern University, Nail began work at SRNS and volunteered to teach students about engineering. Nail partnered with Mark Duignan of EM’s Savannah River National Laboratory to lead experiments on thermodynamic principles to a class at Davidson Fine Arts.
A few weeks later at a lunch for the volunteers, something unexpected happened.
“It all started when we were sharing stories about the activities we led for the students,” said Bill Wabbersen, SRNS engineer. “I began describing my homemade hovercraft, and in that moment, I saw Tom’s face light up. It took us both by surprise.”
Wabbersen, who began volunteering in education outreach in the early 1990s, was one of the engineers who visited Tom’s class over a decade ago.
“We’ve visited nearly every school in the Central Savannah River Area in 25 years,” said Wabbersen. “This wouldn’t be possible without our employees who are responsible for SRNS Education Outreach because they ensure we go through the proper channels to reach the schools. We wouldn’t be able to just walk up and volunteer on our own.”
The volunteers strive to entertain the students to keep them engaged.
“When I conduct these workshops, I try to find the wonder in myself that I had when I was young,” Wabbersen said. “We also try to connect to the five senses, just like the day Tom rode on that hovercraft. There’s a distinct sound it makes, and it feels different than sitting in a regular chair.”
Today, Nail works on a fire suppression system in F/H Laboratories, where employees analyze materials such as soil, water, gases, decommissioning debris, and waste to support the missions of SRS and other DOE sites.
“I’ve reached between 30,000 and 40,000 students, and I had never gotten feedback from anyone who decided to pursue the STEM fields as a result of what I do until I met Tom,” Wabbersen said. “To know I made a difference in a local student’s life was thrilling to me. On top of that, the young man I impacted was paying it forward by sharing his knowledge with middle school students at his alma mater.”
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