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The joy of a project

The goal of CHOICES is to give middle-school girls, including Hayley Benekin (right), the chance to do what engineers do—solve real-world problems.

There’s a sense of excitement and fulfillment that comes from tackling an engineering project, says professor Bill Haller, and it should not be denied to the young.

Haller recently mobilized 22 middle-school girls to do battle against world hunger by making sensors that boost the efficiency of irrigation systems.

Over the course of a week, the students took classes in conductivity, sensor materials, and measurements and tolerances. They went online to do a patent search, and they studied the relationship between crop yield and soil moisture and temperature.

Using virtual instrumentation software, the girls gauged the conductivity and resistivity of soil moisture. They designed sensor probes in a computer-aided design (CAD) lab, and they milled and machined the probes using computer numerical controlled (CNC) tools.

At the end of the week, the girls gave slide presentations on their project to their parents.

The occasion was the CHOICES camp for girls that is hosted each summer by the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. CHOICES (Charting Horizons and Opportunities in Careers in Engineering and Science) was created by the Society of Women Engineers to encourage girls to consider engineering as a possible career.

The camp was supported in part by a donation from Air Products & Chemicals Inc. Hewlett Packard donated scientific calculators, and Professional Publication Inc. made copies of the book Is There An Engineer In You? available at a discount price.

Haller, a professor of practice in the electrical and computer engineering department, directed the camp and organized its curriculum. The goal of the camp was to give girls an opportunity to do what engineers do—solve real-world problems.

After reading articles about efforts to combat world hunger, said Haller, the girls decided to make sensors that detect moisture levels in soil. The sensors conserve water by allowing farmers to irrigate their crops only when they need water.

“We wanted to introduce the girls to engineering by taking on one of the world’s grand challenges,” said Haller, “and showing them that sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders can make a difference by focusing on one part of that problem.”

“More fun than I expected”

Judging from students’ comments, the camp succeeded in its mission.

“I really didn’t know anything about engineering before this week,” said Hayley Benekin, who graduated recently from Orefield Middle School and will attend Parkland High School in the fall. “Now I know about the different kinds of engineers. Some build bridges, some clean up the environment, some make prosthetic legs.”

“This was more hands-on and more fun than I expected,” said Kirstin Ackerman, who will start eighth grade at Eyer Middle School in Macungie in the fall. “I always thought engineers worked in the office with a computer.

“I really enjoyed learning about circuitry and putting everything together in the machine shop. I’d like to be an electrical engineer when I grow up.”

Several guest speakers made presentations at the camp. Ellen Gustafson, CEO and president of FEED Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that helps the United Nations feed children, gave an address and held a question-and-answer session. Damon Neagle, founder of Design IP, an intellectual property law firm in Allentown, also held a Q & A session and gave a talk on patent law and doing patent searches.

Ted Bowen, lab manager in the department of electrical and computer engineering, assisted, as did Herman Baader, engineering technician in the department of mechanical engineering and mechanics.

The camp also attracted seven graduate and undergraduate students in the engineering college, who served as volunteers.

“I’ve loved science and engineering since I was in middle school myself,” said Wendy Lo, a graduate student in industrial engineering who is studying the manufacturing of medical instruments.

“I thought if I volunteered, I would learn something from the kids.”

--Kurt Pfitzer

 

Posted on Monday, July 27, 2009

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