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News / Business / Clark County Business

Tour at Bonneville Power Administration’s Ross Complex sparks kids’ imaginations

Take Your Child to Work Day gives youth rare look at putting science into action

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 27, 2023, 5:27pm
5 Photos
Bonneville Power Administration electrician foreman Steve Hood holds a flaming pillar of methane gas in his hand as part of a demonstration about chemical mixtures Thursday during Take Your Child To Work Day at Bonneville Power Administration's Ross Complex in Vancouver.
Bonneville Power Administration electrician foreman Steve Hood holds a flaming pillar of methane gas in his hand as part of a demonstration about chemical mixtures Thursday during Take Your Child To Work Day at Bonneville Power Administration's Ross Complex in Vancouver. (Photos by Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Twenty years ago, an 8-year-old Zoe Wellschlager visited her father, John, at his job at the Bonneville Power Administration headquarters in Portland for Take Your Child to Work Day.

The experience proved to be somewhat of a defining moment for both Wellschlagers.

“As a kid you’re like, ‘Wow, my dad works in an important place!’ ” said the younger Wellschlager. “But it was something that let me know that I can work here someday. Seeing other women in those positions, too, was really important for me as a young girl.”

“Since she was this tall,” John Wellschlager said, holding his hand low to the ground, “she always said she wanted to be a scientist.”

Now 28, Zoe works as a physical scientist right alongside her father at Bonneville Power Administration.

On Thursday, the duo took part in a child-friendly tour of BPA’s Ross Complex in Vancouver for this year’s edition of Take Your Child to Work Day. As many as 500 students visited the campus this week, each getting a chance to learn important functions that Bonneville Power Administration plays in the daily lives of almost everyone in the Pacific Northwest.

The tours feature a combination of classroomlike experiments and scaled-down demonstrations of actual tests the crew runs each day, such as learning how a hydraulic press tests the amount of weight a platform can sustain and how they use massive towers to discharge excess electricity.

Experiments to careers

Though he retired last year after five decades as an engineer at BPA, Mick Johnson admits he couldn’t stay away when it came to an opportunity to share his passions with a generation that might one day fill his shoes.

“I’m here for the same reason I was here for 55 years,” Johnson said. “I love it here, and these kids are great.”

In one room, Johnson and a team of other engineers demonstrated how one of their most important jobs is simply just to break things to test the limits of various elements used in construction — from ropes used in lifting weights to steel platforms designed to sustain half a million pounds of weight.

“How on earth do you guys think we figure how this thing can hold 500,000 pounds?” engineer Daniel Mullen asked the group of children, gesturing to a 4,000-pound platform.

“A Tyrannosaurus rex!” yelled one child.

“A bunch of kids!” yelled another.

“A hydraulic press!” yelled a third.

Bingo. The group moved stations to see an example of how they use such a machine to learn that, for example, a filled La Croix soft drink can is able to sustain 400 pounds of pressure before bursting. Though they wouldn’t use soda cans in their daily work, Johnson and Mullen said, it’s an example of how they might use the same machinery to test the limits of materials that could serve as the base component for a substation or tower.

In another room, chemists explained how certain chemicals mix together to glow in the dark, burst into flames or serve as the key reaction in the infamous “elephant toothpaste” experiment some might recognize from the days of making model volcanoes.

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Removed from the more sterile setting of a classroom and placed in the context of BPA’s high-security, awe-inspiring campus, the experiments carried a different weight and helped establish a close connection to similar experiments chemists might conduct each day to uphold important environmental standards throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Bonneville Power Administration manages 15,000 miles of transmission wires throughout the region and employs nearly 4,000 people — about one-fifth of the U.S. Department of Energy’s workforce. From electrical engineers to chemists, administration employees maintain that it’s a model opportunity to teach young children about the array of practical careers that can be launched by an interest in science.

“I’m really interested in it all, in all the world’s processes,” Zoe Wellschlager said, who before joining up with her father at BPA last year had served in roles for the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Snow Service and more.

“If anything, we’ve become more transparent through time, we’ve been able to show people more about what we do,” said John Wellschlager, who’s now in his 32nd year at BPA. “I’m always impressed to see how much interest the kids take in this work and what their parents do.”

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