Eighteen local high school students took time out of their February break to converge on Stony Brook University’s Engineering Building to experience the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS) first-ever Exploration Camp.
The new program, held February 21-23, was conducted over three mornings from 9 am to noon, and each day focused on a different engineering discipline.
“The purpose of this camp is to give young students a taste of what engineering is and why it’s important,” said Jon Longtin, CEAS interim dean and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “We showed them some of the things that we think about as engineers, but we also want to get them thinking about pursuing engineering as a career.”
The workshop featured short informal presentations and interactive hands-on activities focusing on mechanical engineering, civil engineering and biomedical engineering.
Wei Yin, associate dean for diversity and outreach in CEAS and an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, spoke to students about how technologies affect biomedical research and healthcare. Topics included genetic engineering, bioimaging, bioinnovation and more. Students then had a chance to build their own devices for bio-mechanical or bio-electrical testing and analysis.
In the civil engineering portion, led by Paolo Celli, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, students learned about various sub-disciplines in the field, and then got a glimpse of what the structures of the future might be like. For example, they learned the basic principles of shape-morphing structures that can reversibly switch between drastically different configurations, and their applications on Earth and beyond. After the lesson, they participated in a create-your-own-extreme-structure contest.
As an introduction to mechanical engineering, students were exposed to a number of different mechanical concepts including force, torque, mechanisms, work, heat and energy conversion. Students were shown demonstrations of support beams, an electric motor and a heat engine. They then worked collaboratively on a project to design and build a walking robot.
Longtin, who led the mechanical engineering workshop, said natural curiosity was a thread that ran through the students.
“They were driven to understand what engineering is, how the world around them works and how it got that way,” he said. “I was extremely impressed with their attentiveness and how focused they were on the topics. They asked questions, they participated in examples and discussions, and they chimed in. They were respectful and eager to learn, which made the entire experience a joy for me.”
Longtin did a demonstration on a heat engine, which uses heat from burning a fuel to produce mechanical energy.
“This technology has been around for 250 years,” he said. “It’s transformed human life in innumerable positive ways. But there’s also a downside that we’re learning about, and that’s climate change. So the message is that a technology isn’t necessarily only good or only bad, and oftentimes, a very successful technology has implications that are both positive and negative. When I was talking about climate change, you can see that the younger generation is really tuned in to the importance of thinking long-term. Which is not surprising, as I think they realize that this will be their generation’s problem to solve.”
Illustrating the importance of mistakes and trial-and-error, a container cracked while Longtin added hot water to it for the heat engine demonstration. He turned it into a teaching moment, telling students: “Things break and fail both during development and in the field. It’s a critical part of understanding where the boundaries are. If you’re not breaking things, you’re not doing engineering.”
Longtin was reminded of his own experience as he watched young people explore a world he has been part of for 27 years.
“What has gotten me as far as I’ve been able to get is a love of understanding how things operate and how they work,” he said. “Engineering showed me that and why things were designed or put together the way that they were. To me that was just magic. That’s really the universal theme; there are always going to be people that engineering resonates with, and that’s what keeps the field moving forward.”
“My dad is an engineer and my science teacher suggested I come here,” said attendee Ava Sacarin, a ninth grader at Deer Park High School on Long Island. “I want to go into medicine. The things I’ve learned here are interesting to me. You never know.”
Longtin described such efforts as a small investment in the future — Stony Brook’s, students like Ava and the engineering world at large.
“With some luck, what we did today was plant a few seeds,” he said. “You make a little hole in the ground, you drop in the seeds, and you water it. And the impact can be profound when it takes right.”
— Robert Emproto