Engineering the future

A Webster City native has returned to town to teach students about opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for a National Engineers Week program.

Phil Einspahr, project manager at International Business Machines corporation (IBM), grew up on Elm Street and graduated from Webster City High School in 1974. He then went to Luther College in Decorah, where he was among the earliest group of students that graduated with a degree in computer science in 1979. He also double majored in physics. Einspahr worked at the college for a year with a small company that was a subcontractor for John Deere. He has worked with IBM since 1980.

Einspahr’s work largely involves collaborating between people. He ensures that all the things his company has to do to deliver a software product are done on schedule.

“I’m kind of like a ringleader. I don’t manage people, but I manage the projects and make sure that all the things that have to be done are done to sell the product,” Einspahr said.

That challenge of project collaboration was what Einspahr brought to Webster City Middle School on Wednesday. After a short presentation, he tasked students with building a simple roller coaster out of PVC pipe and foam insulation. Students were challenged to create loops, twists and turns to the track which was ridden by a steel ball. The emphasis of the project was having those students work in teams of three and four to collaborate and share their ideas to create the project.

“I think, in some ways, kids understand that better now because they’re better connected through social media. It’s the collaborating that’s really important. It’s a big job for any one person to do. I think the idea of the lone Thomas Jefferson in his laboratory is in the past,” Einspahr said.

Students had to consider how gravity and centripetal force affected their ball. Einspahr said those elements tie into another aspect of the program, which advocates for students to take part in STEM classes.

“We’re not as interested, necessarily, that everybody becomes an engineer, but that kids have that opportunity to take the classes that will help them with critical thinking and mathematics so that no matter what career they go into, they will be successful,” Einspahr said.

Einspahr has been a part of this program since 1998, and introduced it in Webster City about three years ago. Other companies, such as Lockheed Martin and Hewlett Packard, also send representatives to schools across the country for the program. It is aimed at children in middle schools. However, Einspahr said that high school is not too late to focus more time on STEM disciplines.

“Personally wasn’t as interested in the mathematics aspect, so I had to play a little catch up. Once I understood it and could starting thinking that way, it became easier for me and it became easier to see how everything fit together,” Einspahr said.

The experience of teaching about 10 classes in a period of two days is somewhat exhausting for Einspahr, but is also very rewarding. His mother and two of his sisters are teachers, and teaching these programs makes him feel immense gratitude toward the teachers that helped him along his career path.

“A lot of my success and who I am is due entirely to adults who took an interest in me and were willing to help me and provide guidance,” Einspahr said. “I have such a strong feeling for the teachers in the town that helped me become the best person I could be and am still trying to be.”