Sometimes the most important question to ask in an engineering workshop for high school students tasked with the creation of a project from idea to conception is: Who wants it? Who might use it? And most importantly, why should the student care about it?
For five weeks this summer in the Edgerton Center’s Engineering Design Workshop (EDW), 27 high school students worked together to create something that could answer those questions, in material form.
Meeting in the D-Lab classroom, students spent the first few weeks learning basic soldering, electronics, and mechanical fabrication. Along with frequent quizzes about each other’s names, they also brainstormed project ideas.
At the end of the second week, each student raised their hand, eyes-closed, for the idea that was the most personally compelling. Students who chose the same idea formed teams and narrowed down their mission. Then, they had three weeks to order materials, build, test, and reiterate.
But, back to the questions.
At the heart of the workshop, first developed by instructor Ed Moriarty and Shane Colton ’08, SM ’10, ten years ago, is a focus on encouraging students to push themselves towards projects that are significant, that are interactive, that resonate. Then they work tirelessly to construct it, on their own terms, learning whatever skills are required along the way – circuit design, coding, wood working, and more.
Early in the workshop, the class spent time interacting with past EDW projects – a musical laser harp, an underwater ROV, an electric skateboard. They were encouraged to talk with one another about their reactions, what feelings they experienced.
Cheetiri Smith ’14, a mentor in her second year of teaching the workshop, noted the struggle that students faced during this exercise. “It was difficult to get people to focus on the soft side of projects. A few people seemed to break into why they cared about things, but keeping students from commenting on the technology was difficult,” she remarked.
The exercise, however, was a valuable one.
Gaining engineering skills is an inevitable outcome of the program. Digging deeper into understanding the “why” of their project and the ultimate goal for the user experience, is essentially the jet fuel that propels these projects to their finish line.
For Moriarty, even more important than how polished the final project turns out to be is the road the team takes to get there. “Do they know how to work with others on a team to accomplish a shared goal?”
With each team appointed a mentor, students had a guide to help with their project. Frequently though, the mentors themselves did not know the answers and could only give students a direction to follow.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we [the mentors] haven’t done before. You’re doing authentically new stuff and I want to learn from you,” Moriarty said.
On the second to last day, teams presented their final prototypes to a roomful of parents, siblings, and friends. Pizza lunch included.
Six teams, six ideas including bicycle chain-powered lights, sensory gloves, and pinball?
Team Electric Vehicle
Lakshay Balasubramani, Harry Thidemann, Sujith Atluri, Paolo Cima, and Shreenhidity Atluri originally set out to make an electric skateboard. However, the idea of creating something that could improve someone’s life proved more compelling.
Balasubramani talked about a friend’s grandmother who had once been a vital part of his life. After an accident, she was confined to a wheelchair. Making life more fun for someone, like his friend’s grandmother, was a purpose that resonated.
Moriarty drove to Hartford, Connecticut to pick up the team’s most important component: a donated mobility scooter found on Craig’s List. Then, they added an Oooga horn, a back-up camera, and LED light strips. Moriarty opened the presentation by driving the wheelchair through the double doors to the front of the class room with the Ooooga horn sounding.
Brandon Man, Gabriel Traietti, Jessica Feng, Sebastian Armstrong, and Tony Ren presented a human-powered light using weight attached to a generator. The user: someone in a developing country with little or no access to the electrical grid.
Their first working prototype was constructed with Lego parts. But with an eye towards using the light in a resource-poor country, the team settled on bicycle parts, readily available in developing countries. The final project was constructed with a rusted bicycle frame and chains donated by Cambridge Bicycle.
Danielle Le, Kaylin Chan, Irene Terpstra, and Rachael Mathew originally wanted to design a glove with Arduino sensors that could enable the user to control a quadcopter and thus prompt a visceral experience for the user. Early on, using a regular remote control, the team steered a quadcopter unintentionally(!) onto a set of parked bikes. This experience taught them early on about minimizing complexity.
They began by wiring the glove to control one motor, then four motors, and eventually an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Team member Le enjoyed the freedom and the chance to collaborate. “Teachers are telling us what to do and what ideas to have; it was really great to come up with our own plan for the day,” she remarked.
Team 1980z so named because of the decade pinball machines became popular
Hoang Nguyen, Hunter Sheehan Dias, and Magan Lee built a laser cut wooden pinball machine for two players. The goal: provide stress relief and fun competition.
The 3’ by 2’ construction, the sixth iteration, has wooden flippers, a ball dispenser made from PVC tubing, and flashing LEDs is a combination of foosball, soccer, and air hockey. One issue that arose was the fact that all of the students enjoyed playing the game. A team member was soon assigned to guard the pinball machine so it was operational for the final presentation. The next iteration, they said, would be enhanced with a score board, a time display, speakers, and more reliable ball dispensers.
Team Music Out of the Box
Sofia Benedetti, Serena Fernandopulle, Yveder Joseph, and Danica Truong built a seven-foot sonic archway made from wood. Sensors on the archway measure the distance to an object (or a person) by using sound waves. When moving underneath, sensors are triggered and cause musical sounds to play. The team tested it with the entire class. Proof of success was when mentors Chris Mayer and Helen Harlan enjoyed a swing dance under the archway. (video here)
The team's primary goal was to engage people in the creation of music in an unconventional way. Their sense of accomplishment was not only the physical structure, but in the various ways everyone interacted with it. “I made this and it really works well, and everyone is having a lot of fun with it, not just our team but everyone,” said Truong.
Team Poland Spring
Nolan Kobs, Vito Montessa, Prachi Kelkar, Nadia Wong, Kristine Yang, and Anika Chaturvedi made a sensor package housed in a waterproof Pelican case that can measure water temperature.
Their device is intentionally simple with few parts that can fail. After testing many sensors, they found an inexpensive yet reliable one and successfully collected temperature data from the Charles River. An added bonus was a day of kayaking from the Massachusetts Avenue bridge to the Longfellow bridge.
Reiterating towards the future
“I completely rely on each of these students as equals on a team to do something magical,” says Moriarty. “They didn’t know each other five weeks ago, they came from different countries, continents. What they accomplished in such a short period of time is mind blowing given where they started.”
Just as the workshop began, with students learning about past projects, it ended with students reflecting on their own project's successes and failures.
Some projects may end with the presentation. Others may live on either as personal projects or through future students looking to improve upon the work done this summer.
Joseph, a member of the Music Out of the Box team who plans to continue working on the musical archway, remarked “It’s never good enough, there’s always something that can be added or improved upon that can make it even better.”
Words of a true engineer.