CMU Students Bring Engineering Fun to Kids

 Celebrating National Engineers Week at the Carnegie Science Center

February 25, 2005

What do racing robots, marshmallow insulators, and Shrinky Dink polymers have in common?

Carnegie Mellon engineering students used each of them to bring engineering fun to the world of children of all ages at the Carnegie Science Center last month for National Engineers Week. Over 6,500 people attended the event from February 18-19, visiting more than 60 stands with hands-on exhibits from local agencies, societies, universities and companies. Middle and high school students and girl scouts earning merit badges came on Friday, while families arrived on Saturday to learn who engineers are, what they do, and how engineering is a part of daily life.

"Engineers make daily life healthier, easier and more efficient through technology, math and science," said Linda Kent, special programs manager for the Carnegie Science Center. "Through this event, visitors see firsthand how engineering touches our lives."

Youngsters created their own engineering projects with university students from Chemical Engineering (ChemE), Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), Engineering and Public Policy (EPP), Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), Mechanical Engineering (MechE), and the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems (ICES).

Excited future engineers programmed racing robots at the ECE table, which starred a robot with a flasher circuit that beat like a heart or a clock. Little ones played with a simpler electronic circuit with flashing light emitting diode (LED) lights.

"Visitors had the chance to ask questions about the circuit, watch it being put together, and program the robot to follow their instructions," reported ECE graduate student Harvey Vrsalovic. "It allowed them to see how simpler electronic building blocks can be combined to make more complicated systems, which is one of the things that ECE is all about."

Padmini Gopalakrishnan, another ECE graduate student, developed a handout on computer aided design (CAD) for the girl scouts who came to work on badges. The materials explain transistors, microprocessors, simulation and verification, optimization, and the process used to manufacture chips in a foundry. Illustrations show a waveform from a CAD tool, a layout of a microprocessor, and a die shot photograph of a manufactured chip. Also covered are the main criteria used in designing chips: area, performance, and power.

ChemE teaching professor Annette Jacobson coordinated Carnegie Mellon's delegation to the center, with ECE faculty member Tom Sullivan managing our department's volunteers. Along with Vrsalovic and Gopalakrishnan they included graduate students Charles Fry, Beth Latronico, Jon McCune, Peter Milder, Mike Murphy, Sampan Nettayanun, Amit Singhee, Lauren Taylor, and Yik Shing (Arnold) Yip, and undergraduate students Lauren Chikofsky, Khalid Harun, Ludwig Salomon, and Wantanee Viriyasitavat.

At the ChemE station, kids played with Shrinky Dink polymers and a pencil wrapped with heat shrink plastic to learn about the shrinking polymer products used for toys, medicine, and safety protective seals. Bridge building was mechanical engineering's focus; families made their own bridges with paper, tape, and staples and tested them until they fell under the weight of Hershey kisses. Similarly, the ICES group taught participants how to build a bone with newspaper and tape and max out its load bearing strength until the breaking point.

MSE's presentation illustrated the ubiquity of smart materials in our society, with demonstrations teaching that ceramics make the best conductors, marshmallows are great insulators, and slime is a polymer.

The CEE display showed how common materials can be recycled into new products, with an activity for the girl scout badge. To play EPP's "Go Fish" environmental cleanup project, attendees used fishing poles to remove a piece of trash from a mock river, and won a small candy reward when they turned in the litter.

Carnegie Mellon students enjoyed explaining engineering concepts using every day items and basic engineering tools to demonstrate how simple systems are created. "This way, people outside the academic community can better understand what we do, without being frightened by the perceived complexity of 'technology,'" Vrsalovic said.

Beth Latronico (right) shows children how to program the robots on the track.

The National Engineers Week logo at the Science Center.

From left to right: student volunteers Peter Milder, Khalid Harun, Ounali Jaffery, and Beth Latronico all helped with activities at the science center.

Charles Fry helps a budding young engineer.

Peter Milder (left) and Khalid Harun man the ECE table.