Knoxville second-graders adopt Auburn Engineering, inspire recruitment road trip

Published: Apr 11, 2022 12:00 AM

By Jeremy Henderson

He typed in "Auburn outreach." The first thing that came up? Auburn Engineering’s Office of Recruitment, K-12 Outreach and Scholarship. Then he dialed the number. 

So, when his fellow teachers at Emerald Academy, a charter prep school in Knoxville, Tennessee, ask how in the world he managed to pull that off, that's what he tells them — Google and a phone.

What Kevin Ickles managed to pull off was bringing Auburn Engineering and the Auburn spirit to the second-graders he teaches in a classroom that was transformed to Auburn University.

"Well, that's just something Emerald Academy does, as a way to sort of inspire the kids — we name and theme each class after colleges and universities," Ickles said. "We keep it to SEC schools, Ivy League Schools and HCBUs. My class is Auburn." 

Down the hall, there's the University of Tennessee. Around the corner are Harvard and Princeton. It's fun. Ickles’ classroom is filled with orange and blue pennants, tiger stuffed animals and a tree made to look like a tree at Toomer's Corner. The classroom's centers that are named after engineering buildings.

Last fall, Ickles decided to take it up a notch.

"When I saw that there were Auburn Engineering K-12 outreach opportunities, I thought it might be cool to focus on engineering specifically because STEM is something we emphasize here," he said. "I was thinking that especially because of Covid, Auburn and probably a lot of other colleges had probably upped their game in terms of virtual opportunities." 

He was searching for something that could provide a stronger sense of connection to the nameplate on the outside of the door than just a pennant on the wall or a stuffed animal mascot on a windowsill. 

"I was really crossing my fingers for something interactive," he said.

It worked. And then some.

Auburn Engineering wanted to take it up a notch, too. Before long, "yes, we can do that" turned into "see you soon" and "interactive" turned into "in person."

"I was glad they couldn't see me," Ickles said. "I had this huge smile on my face."

Auburn Engineering K-12 outreach coordinator Sydney Riley had a smile on her face, too.

"It sounded like a great opportunity that could be even more than just a virtual field trip," Riley said. "A lot of these kids have never left Knoxville. What better way to show the Auburn spirit than showing them in person. We were really honored that he would want his second graders to get to know more about Auburn and Auburn Engineering."

On Friday, November 19th, Riley packed her bags.

"It was such a great trip," she says. "I was able to lead engineering demonstrations for them in their class by building a catapult and slingshot car. And I couldn’t leave without teaching the K-2 grade classes how to say ‘War Eagle’ when the eagle flies around the stadium."

And by “teach,” she means show.

"Sydney had three students volunteer to represent the three Auburn eagles and run around the room with their arms stretched out like wings while everyone else did the 'Waaaar' part of the cheer," Ickles said. “The ‘Eagle, Hey’ came as soon as the eagle ran up the stairs and landed on the stage.”

“I might be biased, but the K-2 graders at Emerald Academy sounded just as loud as it does in Jordan-Hare Stadium.” Riley said “It gave me chills listening to how much they enjoyed cheering on their student eagles.”

Riley also left every student with an Auburn shaker and a bottle of Toomer’s lemonade

"After that, even kids from other classes would see me in the hall and shout 'War Eagle' and 'Auburn is the best,'" Ickles said. "And it was kind of, like, 'yeah, Auburn is cool.'" 

Cool enough for a detour. Ickles and his wife are planning a trip the Florida panhandle soon. But instead of getting off on 185 South, they’re going to stay on 85 for another 45 miles or so. 

"I can't wait," he said. "I really want to see the place for myself. I went to a small college outside of New York City called Kean University but I'm kind of an Auburn fan now. I've had my Auburn shirt on and been told 'War Eagle.' It’s crazy, but it’s really all because Auburn took the time to make a difference in the lives of my students. You kind of wonder why other schools aren't doing this. I know some of the Ivy League schools might be hard pressed to make the trip, but, I mean, there's one here in town that could. To me, it just goes to show how invested Auburn is in reaching young people and exposing them to the field of engineering.” 

"I'm just really thankful for what Sydney did," he said. "Maybe I should call her again."

Jessica Taylor, director of recruiting and scholarships, agrees. He should call Sydney again.

“Inspiring the next generation of engineers is what we do on a daily basis,” Taylor said. “I am so thankful for Sydney and the hard work she has put into our K-12 programming. She has implemented outstanding outreach programs and built relationships that are truly creating a pipeline of engineers. By building a relationship with Mr. Ickles, Sydney was able to make a profound impact on the students at Emerald Academy. I can’t wait to welcome some of these students into our engineering family in a few years.” 

“So, remember, all you need is Google and a phone to inspire the next generation of Auburn engineers,” Riley said. “I believe in Auburn, and absolutely love it. I know that other students and teachers will, too.”

Media Contact: Jeremy Henderson,, 334-844-3591
Kevin Ickles' second-grade class at Knoxville's Emerald Academy.

Kevin Ickles' second-grade class at Knoxville's Emerald Academy.

Recent Headlines