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May 22, 2006

Engineering undergrads inspire high school students

By Tim Stephens

The Baskin School of Engineering hosted about 100 students from San Jose area high schools last week for campus tours and workshops. Teams of engineering undergraduates organized and ran the workshops, which used fun and challenging projects to convey different aspects of engineering.

Photo: Outreach participants

Visiting high school students show off their "nanomouse" robots at an engineering school outreach workshop.
Photo: Young Kim

The "nanomouse" workshop involved a mobile robot the students had to program to make its way through a maze. The "clay building" workshop involved constructing a tower out of clay and toothpicks. The projects were designed to inspire the students and get them interested in studying engineering and pursuing careers in science and technology.

"The kids absolutely loved it," said Young Kim, undergraduate outreach coordinator for the engineering school.

Organizing the workshops was a major undertaking, said Ian Dunbar-Hall, president of the UCSC Engineering Honor Society, which ran the nanomouse workshop. Honor society members led by outreach chair John Burr spent several months designing the low-cost mobile robots--creating a prototype, designing the circuits, and writing the software. Then they built enough to give a nanomouse to each of the visiting high school students.

Burr said it was exciting to see the students exploring the potential of the  nanomouse beyond the prescribed tasks. "By the end of the day, the mice were running off jumps and jousting against each other," he said.

"Seeing the students at the end of the day still programming the nanomouse while waiting for the bus showed us how successful the day was," added Dunbar-Hall. "Now we hope to build a curriculum around nanomouse for high school teachers to use in the classroom."

The clay building workshop, organized by the UCSC chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), emphasized teamwork. Students worked in pairs to construct a building out of toothpicks and a small amount of clay, seeing how far they could make the building curve out beyond its base. Prizes were awarded for the most extended building, the tallest building, and the most creative building.

"One catch was that the students were paired up with students from other high schools, because in the real world of engineering you work with people you don't know," Kim said. "Of course, they wanted to work with their friends, but they quickly got into the project and learned to work together amicably."

The visiting students came from Los Altos, James Lick, and Yerba Buena High Schools. The event was sponsored by the California Academic Partnership Program (CAPP), a partnership between California higher education institutions and public schools.

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