images courtesy of burns & McDonnell
Brainchild Engineering firms sponsored design competition hopes to attract K-12 students to science, math and engineering subjects.
Courtesy Burns & McDonnell
Burns & McDonnell's program boosts engineering's appeal to students.

With plans to add nearly 1,000 positions by the end of 2013, Kansas City-based engineer Burns & McDonnell isn't wasting any time on its recruiting efforts, both short and long term. One effort aimed at its future workforce is the “Battle of the Brains” competition, a pilot program launched this summer to introduce area K-12 students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The competitions are judged using social media.

Students are vying to redesign Science City, an interactive educational center that is the highlight of an 87-year-old, 850,000-sq-ft train depot turned cultural complex. The winning schools receive $150,000 in grant money. Burns & McDonnell is bankrolling “Battle of the Brains” through its foundation as part of a $1.3-million package pledge, announced on Feb. 25, to the 12-year-old, 280,000-sq-ft Science City. The company already underwrites the Burns & McDonnell Engineerium laboratory, a space inside Science City in which students can work, play and perform experiments using high-tech computers and robotics equipment. The company has committed $500,000 to expand and revamp the Science City exhibition space.

Burns & McDonnell held 190 workshops this summer that introduced teachers to Google SketchUp, a free 3D drawing software tool, while launching a dedicated contest website and instructional video. “Battle of the Brains” attracted 300 submissions, mostly from eight-person school teams. “Our strategic focus is kindergarten through 12th grade. There is a lack of project-based learning that can spark student interest,” says Melissa Lavin-Hickey, foundation director. “We've been flabbergasted by the level of support and enthusiasm.”

Finalists will be announced on Nov. 11, with the winning scheme debuting inside Science City next June. “The initiatives are more than altruism,” says Roger Dick, Burns & McDonnell marketing manager. “We depend upon getting high-quality engineering- school graduates.” While “Battle of the Brains” is a onetime event, it is being reviewed for future use.

Burns & McDonnell is undertaking other educational efforts that are geared to today's digitally savvy youth. Kansas City will be the only Midwest site for “Science on a Sphere,” a large-scale Earth display developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to show real-time atmosphere, land and ocean movements. The installation uses a 68-in.-dia orb suspended by a wire 4.4 ft from the ground; four video images are projected onto a 30-sq-ft surrounding area. Bluetooth-enabled holograms create a 3D animated globe.

Burns & McDonnell is spending $700,000 to build “Science on a Sphere,” set to finish in March, inside Science City. Other Science City-related commitments include more teacher programs, family workshops and outreach to help more schools make the trip.