Logo: University of Southern California

‘Mission: Engineering’ Accomplished

A two-week non-residential summer camp reaches out to exceptional high school sophomores and juniors from educationally disadvantaged communities

September 16, 2008 — Twenty-four high school sophomores and juniors with above average grades in math and science were introduced to the world of engineering this summer, building everything from balsawood bridges to robotic arms, as part of a new Viterbi School Pre-College Program called “Mission: Engineering.”
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Darin Gray, left, works with Eduardo Artaza, center, and Alyssa Sancio, right, both of the 32nd Street/MaST High School.

The two-week summer camp, the first part of a three-year program of  educational enrichment activities made possible by a grant from the Toyota USA Foundation, was designed to give students from underserved communities hands-on experience in a variety of engineering disciplines while building their critical thinking skills and self-esteem.  

During the program, the students were able to use state-of-the art facilities in Tutor and Kaprielian Halls to design their bridges, gliders and robots.  Taught by Darin Gray, science coordinator in the Pre-College Programs Office, Mission: Engineering was conceived by Larry Lim, director of Pre-College Programs, who has spent three decades creating hands-on programs to excite young students about science and engineering.

“The goal of this program was to expose students who have the aptitude for careers in engineering to a variety of professions, such as civil and environmental engineering, biomedical engineering, robotics, mechanical engineering and aerospace,” said Lim, whose office is part of the Viterbi School’s Admission and Student Affairs office. “Most of these kids had not been introduced to engineering before, but they have the potential of doing well in the field.”
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L-R: Ignacio Cordova, South Gate High, Chirantha Kaluthanthri, Middle College High School, and  Joshua Gomez, Palisades High School show off their rover.
Gray said the program was “a little like taking college Engineering 101 in two weeks.”  

“The kids were just incredible,” said Gray, an electrical engineer and former high school teacher.  “They went through the lesson plans at lightning speed, building each project much faster than I expected.”

Among their five primary construction challenges, the students were asked to build a balsawood bridge two lanes wide and at least four feet long, having a one-foot clearance beneath the structure.  The bridge was supposed to be strong enough to support a remote-controlled car, which they drove over the bridges during their final demos of the bridges.

Each construction project was introduced with a lecture, in this case, a lecture on civil engineering, which covered key concepts in bridge-building, such as load, force, stress/strain curves, cantilever construction and suspension technology.  Then the students built and tested small-scale models of the bridge using toothpicks to see how much weight the structures would support.
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Rafael Viramontes of Panorama High School holds up his robot car.

“We took them through this process step by step so that they would understand the concepts underlying their creations,” Gray explained.  “The projects were designed to be difficult, real world examples of what engineers do, but despite the difficulty, they were successful in not only completing the projects, but in working together and analyzing their efforts.”
Teaching assistants Eric Nguyen and Rhett Fahrney, both undergraduate engineering students, helped the high school students during construction.  After testing their toothpick bridges on an earthquake machine, the students used the WestPoint Bridge Designer to simulate a bridge for maximum strength and lowest cost.  Then they made scaled-down drawings and models of their balsawood bridges before actually building them.

“They’re learning about important principles that they don’t get in the classroom, plus they’re learning to work with total strangers, kids they’ve never met before, in a university environment,” said Nguyen, a mechanical engineering super senior. “We’d like to think that this was a jumping off point for them, a good starting point for really getting into the nuts and bolts of engineering.  But hopefully, it was a fun experience as well.”       

Fun, and challenging, it was. Edward Martinez, who attends 32nd Street/MaST High School, across the street from USC, said the program “was interesting and motivated me further in pursuing a career in the engineering field, by hands-on examples, and even tours, either a real labs or a field trip. It was one of the most explorative experiences I have had and I consider it a challenging but rewarding program. I give my personal thanks to the teachers and assistants that made this program possible, and I hope it continues to remain active for many years to come.”

“Mission Engineering was a lot of fun,” said Alyssa Sancio, another student at 32nd Street/MaST High School. “We learned so much, and we met some great friends. Not forgetting to mention all of the help and support we got from Mr. Gray and the student assistants.”
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Nayeli Cruz, left, and Miguel Martinez, right, both of Los Angeles High School of the Arts, build a model of an arm to understand key concepts such as grabbing, moving, lifting and rotating.     

Back in the labs, another project was designed to introduce students to biomedical engineering and robotics, challenging them to build a robotic arm.  The process involved first creating a prosthetic robotic arm with a Vex Robot kit that was capable of manipulating a paper cup.  Gray said the exercise taught students key concepts such as grabbing without crushing, moving, lifting and rotating a structure.  

“Then the students were given a series of projects to build skills and to give them experience,” Gray said.  “First they designed a paper robot arm, controlled by strings, and a five-finger robot hand controlled by strings.  From there, we had them build a two-finger robot hand that was controlled by motors and a wooden robot arm that was controlled by hydraulic fluid.  

“From these projects, they were able to experiment and learn about construction and controlling the arm,” Gray continued.  “Once they were equipped with this knowledge, the kids were able to design, build and program the Vex Robot kit to function as an arm.”
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Teaching assistant Rhett Fahrney, a junior majoring in computer science with an emphasis in games and interactive media, helps students.
Lim said the 11th grade is the ideal time to engage promising young students in engineering and try to pique their interest in science and technology because the students are less than a year away from entering college.  

“This is a critical juncture, because in order to succeed in any branch of engineering, students need critical thinking skills and as much exposure as possible to real world applications, “Lim said. “The summer camp was also designed to give them team-building skills and some experience on a university campus.”
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Vicky Than of Alhambra High School holds up her arm model prior to designing a robotic arm and hand.     

Mission: Engineering, as well as other programs like it, is designed in part to help close the gap in science and mathematics achievement by stimulating young people’s natural curiosity about the world and how things work.  The program also gives students a head start on learning fundamental principles in mathematics and science, as well as introducing them to engineering for the first time.  

“Prior to attending the MESA Mission Engineering summer program at USC, I had but a vague idea of what field of engineering had careers I could see myself doing but, after an intensive two-week session, I am confident in my choice of a field,” said Ignacio Cordova of South Gate High School. “Without having attended this enriching program, I could have found myself working in a field that would make me say every morning, ’Ugh, another day at work…’ instead of saying, ‘Yes, another day at work!’”  

Launched at the Viterbi School in June 2007, Mission: Engineering is supported with a three-year, $225,000 corporate and foundation relations grant from Toyota USA Foundation.  The program also includes a Saturday seminar series, which started in July, shortly before the summer camp was held.  Two weekend seminars were conducted before the summer camp and one shortly thereafter.  Another is planned for the fall, Lim said.  The weekend seminars are open to 10th and 11th grade students in the Los Angeles area who are eligible to apply for Mission: Engineering.