Dozens of students at Nathan Twining Elementary and Middle School celebrated Engineers Week by participating in a home-built mini car race with staff at Northrop Grumman.

The event was held at Northrop Grumman's facility at the Grand Sky drone park, located near Grand Forks Air Force Base. Thirty-eight middle school students took part through video conferencing to watch their self-engineered cars, powered by mousetraps, race through the company’s hangar. The race was Northrop Grumman’s contribution to Engineers Week, a period of time set aside to help spark interest in engineering and technology careers.

Sixth-grade student Austin Armendariz Lotito won the competition.

“Being the winner was very cool. It was just a lot of fun,” Lotito told the Herald. “My friends congratulated me and I just felt really happy.”

Lotito said he used CDs for the wheels, and his car was propelled by a string that unfurled when the mousetrap was set off, sending it speeding through the hangar for a distance of 75 feet. He said he likes to build things and that he could see himself being an engineer in the future.

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According to Mike Fridolfs, Northrop Grumman’s Grand Sky site director, Engineers Week events are normally held in person, but students had to watch the race through video conferencing technology because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The students each received a car kit from Northrop Grumman staff, and were told they could build it in any manner they chose, as long as it was powered by the mousetrap. Students were allowed to use their own ingenuity and creativity in adding parts to the car, and could even use 3D printed parts. Once completed, staff collected the cars and held the event in the company’s hangar.

“We really wanted to hit home that we are not just a company here in Grand Forks, but our participation in the community is so huge,” said Fridolfs. “We really wanted to kick off the week and show (the students) that STEM and engineering can be really, really fun.”

Fridolfs was assisted in getting the event started by Mayor Brandon Bochenski, who then stayed to help out.

“I stuck around and did the measurements for the mousetrap cars that the Twining students had made, so it was pretty fun,” Bochenski said.

Engineers Week is part of Northrop’s overall outreach to the community. The company holds fun events for students each year, to introduce them to the possibility of pursuing an engineering career. Fostering an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the local community is a way to inspire students to study those subjects, and it increases the local pool of job candidates.

And Northrop has shown a commitment to hiring locally. In July of 2020, the company hired a dozen interns from UND, Northland Community & Technical College, NDSU and other regional universities.

But Engineers Week isn’t limited to Northrop Grumman, Fridolfs said. Companies across the nation use the time to come up with interesting ideas for students, including building mousetrap airplanes or bridges out of uncooked spaghetti. Engineers Week, or EWeek, was started by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951, and is celebrated each year in the week that encompasses George Washington’s birthday.

For Fridolfs, the event was all about getting students interested in STEM work.

“It's phenomenal when you see that light bulb come on in the kids’ heads,” he said.