Author: Tamar Kupiec
“Engineering is all imagination,” says Andy Tran. “I had a lot of it as a kid growing up. My imagination is very vivid, vivid to the point where I would dream about what I [had imagined during the day].”
If Andy’s future career demands imagination, then his professional education began outdoors on the dead-end street where he lived with in grandparents in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Here he and a friend would invent games with whatever they found— leaves might act as money in their make-believe bank, a patch of dirt could be almost anything.
Aside from a trip to Mt. Rainier when relatives were visiting, Andy did not venture much outside the city. His was a traditional family, based on gatherings over hearty meals at home. Everything changed when he took part in the School Overnight Program as a fifth grader with Wing Luke Elementary. He had never been in a forest like the one at IslandWood, but Andy is the rare person who describes being outside his “comfort zone” as “pleasant.” He felt so free, calm, and curious that he would sometimes wander off and need to be called back to the group. His instructor guided the students on nature walks, pointing out insects and plants he had never seen before. Andy returned to Seattle with a newfound interest not only in hiking—but in biology too.
Certainly Andy had studied science before. He remembers making a terrarium in school. They laid the dirt, inserted a little plant, added some insects. But Andy was left wondering what the point was behind all this “little stuff.” It was at IslandWood, where he learned about ecosystems, that he first saw the big picture. His instructor had asked the students how the air felt in the forest. To Andy it felt fresh. The instructor then explained that trees consume carbon dioxide from the air (a waste product of both people and factories) and release the oxygen that we need to breath. That terrarium—the interconnectedness of living things—finally made sense.
Andy has kept his eye on the big picture ever since. He has to, if he is to finish an associate’s degree at Bellevue College by night while working from 6:00 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon at LMI Aerospace. LMI is paying for this education, as well as the four-year degree in mechanical engineering that will follow.
To work at LMI, a manufacturer of airplane parts, Andy completed a four-month course in mechanical assembly at Renton Technical College. The work can be painstaking, and clients, such as Boeing and the military, can be picky. A single nick and an entire part must be thrown away. But Andy likes the work. He’ll find himself with a drill in one hand and the parts spread out on the table before him. He’ll look at the picture and think, “All right, I need to build this.” He values this hands-on experience and believes it will help him design innovative solutions, perhaps in the development of hydrogen-based engines or other green technology.
For a 25-year-old without children, Andy has some strong opinions about raising them. His mother did not want him to go to IslandWood. “Who’s going to watch you?” she asked. Would he be safe? she worried. With the help of his teachers, he persuaded her. Today he is deeply invested in the care and upbringing of his three much younger siblings. In fact, when his mother did not want his brother to take part in a school trip to Lake Sammamish, out of concern for his allergies, Andy agreed to act as a chaperon. He believes in the importance of getting kids out of the house, away from screens, and into new environments—of “feed[ing] their curiosity.” Humans, he says, should be more like animals in the wild that teach their offspring to hunt and survive from a young age. He is grateful for his childhood spent outdoors and his time at IslandWood.
Andy chose a career in mechanical engineering with care. His family had urged him to enter a medical profession, such as pharmacology, but he insisted on finding work that took into account who he, Andy Tran, truly was. It’s also a practical choice. All companies are looking to innovate, he explains, so his skills will always be in demand. A promising engineer, Andy has a natural understanding for systems—the relationships between the parts and the whole. He sees the relationships between animals and plants and their environment, between the education and experience he needs and his career ambitions, between the freedom to explore and the development of an active mind. Andy is now studying the relationships among forces, mechanics, and materials, and someday he will build a better machine.