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Shadow Hanson motivates young minds to pursue STEM careers

John Nelson speaking to a room of high school students while standing and wearing a royal blue Hanson shirt
John Nelson, P.E., a vice president and senior project manager at Hanson, gives his keynote speech at the annual Shadow Hanson event for high school students Nov. 30, 2022, at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield, Illinois.

“It’s a great time to be an engineer. So much work needs to be done to our infrastructure. Not only will there always be jobs available, but it’s highly rewarding work, as you get to see the fruits of your labor. Civil engineer, mechanical engineer – it doesn’t matter. We need more engineers.”

John Nelson, P.E., a vice president and senior project manager who works at Hanson’s Chicago regional office, offered this insight to high school students considering a career in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and told the story of his love for civil engineering Nov. 30, 2022, during his keynote speech at Shadow Hanson, an annual event that brought approximately 170 Springfield, Illinois-area high school students together to participate in hands-on engineering demonstrations by Hanson engineers and technical staff. The event is designed to encourage young minds to pursue STEM careers.

“The most important thing I did as a young person to set the stage for my engineering career was taking a math test in junior high that qualified me to be in a more advanced math class,” John said. “Taking those advanced courses at a younger age makes it easier to take engineering classes at the college level, so aim for that advanced-placement math and science, and don’t forget English. Even engineers need to be able to communicate.”

Laying that groundwork at an early age enabled John to forge a path to a fulfilling career that has made a difference in the communities in which he’s worked. “Civil engineers build the highways, the bridges, the sewers,” he said. “You can see the improvements you are able to plan, design, construct and deliver to the public and the benefits that come from them.”

He added that his education has allowed him to work on many exciting projects, including the Central Tri-State Tollway (Interstate 294), which he calls one of the highlights of his career, as well the Illinois Tollway Cherry Valley interchange and a project on I-90 in northern Illinois that his team took from concept to construction documents in a highly expedited, six-month span. “It was challenging but so rewarding to see the finished construction,” he said.

Hanson employee speaks to five students sitting on the floor of a conference room with beige, patterned carpet
Traffic Designer Nada Naffakh works with a group of students during the interactive exhibit portion of Shadow Hanson.

‘This is the only world we have’

The half-day Shadow Hanson event, which drew students from nearly a dozen area schools, spotlighted civil, mechanical, electrical, structural, transportation and geotechnical engineering disciplines and featured interactive student stations with drones, flood plain models, traffic planning, a bridge destruction video and environmental and seismic demonstrations.

Passion Hood, a student at Southeast High School in Springfield, was most impressed with seeing how flooding affects a community and how engineering can be used to prevent it. “My interest in engineering was inspired by activities I did as a child,” Passion said, “such as assembling robots and computer coding. Once I complete my education, I hope to use my experiences to show other African American women that it’s possible to pursue your dreams and shoot for the stars.”

Lillian Waghorn of Auburn High School, who wants to become an engineer so she can do her part to help care for the environment, appreciated learning about the transition from fossil fuels to solar-powered energy and how it’s transpiring locally. “This is the only world we have,” she said, “so we have to continue creating engineering solutions to keep the problems we face from continuing and becoming worse.”  

Cultivating bright futures

Hanson Talent Development Consultant Teresa Mazzini, who led the event’s coordination, stressed the importance of supporting students in pursuing STEM careers. 

“When you are in high school, you have your whole future ahead of you, and there are many important decisions to be made,” Teresa said. “Our goal with Shadow Hanson is to empower and inspire our students to get a taste of what engineering is all about, how it can speak to them personally, and even how they might begin the path to become future Hanson engineers.”

To learn more about Shadow Hanson and Hanson’s other opportunities for high school and college students who are interested in STEM, contact Teresa at or visit And be sure to check out this video from the Shadow Hanson event!

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