Building (toothpick) bridges, inspiring youth


Mario Garcia guides sixth-grader Elija through a small-scale, hands-on bridge-building exercise as part of an engineering mentoring program.

Mario Garcia studies the quaint, colorful cluster homes that trim Akron's North Drive. The crisp, well-groomed houses — an eye-pleasing color block of soft creams, heathers, beiges and reds in Cascade Village — are a pleasant change from the former Section 8 housing where Garcia and his family staked residence several years ago. It's a place where an engineer can make a mark, tangibly and inspirationally.

Garcia, a civil engineering senior at The University of Akron, is doing just that. He returns to the neighborhood week after week to teach area sixth- through ninth-graders about engineering through the Young Engineers Mentoring Program. As he shows Innes Middle School sixth-grader Elija how to construct a model bridge with toothpicks, he reflects on his own childhood.

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"I’ve spent my entire life facing struggles," he says, mentioning his family's loss of their home several years ago. Though temporarily without a home of his own, Garcia maintained his love and fascination for building structures.

"I've always liked looking at houses and buildings. It's what interested in me in engineering, leaving my stamp somewhere," Garcia says.

Garcia already has started to leave that stamp in Cascade Village by sharing his enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for engineering with children in the mentoring program. Likewise, junior mechanical engineering student Niem Tran is having the same positive influence.

Niem Tran explains the importance of precision to sixth-grader Davyan, as he builds a model bridge with the Caldwell Middle School student.

"This is perfection," Tran says, as he inspects Caldwell Middle School sixth-grader Davyan's freshly constructed toothpick bridge. "He (Davyan) has great potential." Tran is a University Park Alliance scholarship recipient.

Inspired by his mentors, Davyan says he's interested in becoming an engineer. Those mentors, UA engineering students involved in the Increasing Diversity in Engineering Academics (IDEAs) Program, volunteer their time to work with local youngsters and inspire a new generation of engineers. In coming months, UA students will work alongside the middle school children to design robots and construct a Soap Box Derby car.

"We are so proud of the students' sense of collaboration with the local organization," says Dr. Julie Zhao, IDEAs program director, "and with their sense of community service."

Visit UA's IDEAs Program to learn more.

Media contact: Denise Henry, 330-972-6477 or