A Civil Engineer Makes a Special Impression on Fourth-Graders

November 13, 2015
ASCE member James Wonneberg speaks with a fourth-grade class at Liberty Elementary School in Chantilly, VA.

Word spread around the classroom in a flash – the guest of honor had arrived. The students piled around the doorway, trying to see.

“Where is he? Where is he?”

Who was visiting Leanne Fisher’s fourth-grade classroom at Liberty Elementary School in Chantilly, Loudoun County, VA?

An athlete? A rock star?

Nope. To the kids, even better. The guest of honor was James Wonneberg, civil engineer.

“They definitely think James is a superhero,” Fisher said. “He’s famous.”

Fisher’s fourth-graders have been learning about engineering as part of a Loudoun schools initiative, One to the World, which aims to develop 21st century-relevant skills in students through project-based learning. In October, Fisher screened an ASCE video, “What Do Engineers Do?” which featured Wonneberg and his work on construction of a massive tunnel to help reduce sewer overflows into Washington, DC, rivers. Her students were so excited by what they’d seen that she decided to reach out to Wonneberg via Twitter.



“I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “It was cool that she just went out there and looked me up and tried to find me after watching the video. It looked like they were right in the middle of those projects, obviously with those pictures that she sent me, so I kind of wanted to see it.”

Wonneberg, P.E., A.M.ASCE, brought with him a PowerPoint presentation tailored for the fourth-graders, and a genuine curiosity about what they were learning. He got down on the carpet and had face-to-face conversations with the students about their projects.

“The thing about James was his interest,” said Liberty Principal Paul Pack. “He didn’t just come for the show or because it was something in his schedule. He showed up with a smile on his face, ready to go. He wanted to know these kids and know what they were doing.”

“They were so invested in what he was saying,” Fisher said. “They were listening and asking questions. He was a natural teacher. It’s what we do – we’re trained to ask the right question to get them to think deeper. And he did that naturally.”

Wonneberg’s gift for instruction can be attributed in some part to conversations he has at home with his two children, 5 and nearly 3.

“Both of my kids are very interested in the tunneling and all the things I do in my work,” he said. “My 5-year-old son asks me about work all the time, so we talk about it, talk about the fun stuff. It was not that much of a stretch for me to talk to 10-year-olds rather than 5-year-olds. And they were right on top of the concepts when we talked about the overflows and digging the tunnel and digging the shafts in the ground. They were all over it.”

Students at Liberty have been learning about landforms and pollutants and the roles civil engineers play in helping society. Pack said the school has emphasized STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and math – for several years. This year, the school district is encouraging all students and classrooms to connect with the real world as part of the One to the World instructional plan. Fisher’s class recently presented its project, including the story of Wonneberg’s visit, to the school board.

“Our kids have been talking about being young engineers since kindergarten,” Pack said. “I don’t think the point has been driven home as clearly as [in] what Leanne has done as to what an engineer really does and how they contribute to society, but we’ve been using words like ‘engineer’ and ‘design’ and ‘redesign’ with them since the age of 5.”


Growing up in St. Charles, IL, Wonneberg discovered his love for engineering not in fourth grade but still relatively early – in high school.

“I started a class called Product Design, and that was the first time where I was like, ‘Whoa, designing stuff is actually really fun!’” he said.

Wonneberg is now the resident engineer responsible for construction management of the Blue Plains Tunnel, part of DC Water’s Clean Rivers megaproject. And he’s now the resident hero in Fisher’s classroom.

“They feel like James is a buddy; he’s their friend, a mentor,” Pack said. “And that was just from one visit.” Students sent him a certificate of gratitude, thank you notes, and one of their water-cycle activities for his kids to enjoy.

Wonneberg and the class have remained in contact through Twitter. “We’re definitely going to keep in touch,” Fisher said.

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