Starting a car engine with the click of a mouse. Seeing a wind tunnel big enough to stand in. Getting hugged by a 300-pound robot.
High school students from the Los Angeles area were given an in-depth look into the daily lives of USC Viterbi aerospace and mechanical engineers during the STEM Spotlight on the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering (AME). The semi-annual event is produced by the Viterbi Adopt-a-School, Adopt-a-Teacher (VAST) program in an effort to support STEM education.
“STEM Spotlight events are important so that students from inner city schools can see firsthand how their fundamental STEM coursework ties into the research that is changing the world around us,” said Katie Mills, VAST manager. “Our goal is to help build self-identity in the students so they start seeing themselves a problem-solvers and, perhaps, even as future engineers.”
The two-day event kicked off on October 6 when students from two Southern California high schools visited the USC Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) for the CAM Open House, led by CAM Director and AME Professor S.K. Gupta, a Smith International Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science.
Visitors, including Lynwood Unified School District’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the Scorpions Robotics Club of Desert Junior and Senior High School, toured the facility and interacted with the lab’s robots and advanced 3-D printers.
The following week, on October 12, 120 high school students came to the USC campus to learn about aerospace and mechanical engineering through lab tours, talks by professors and an informational alumni panel. Students were also invited to show off their knowledge of aerodynamics in a paper airplane competition held in the Epstein Family Plaza.
Coming from three Southern California schools, including STEM Academy of Hollywood, STEM Academy of Boyle Heights and Diamond Bar High School, the high school students were given the opportunity to see further into engineering and where a career in STEM can take them. AME professors and graduate students showed the high schoolers around the various labs and gave a brief overview of their current research. In addition, many labs used hands-on experiments to showcase aerospace and mechanical engineering concepts.
“We wanted to show how engineering science is used to design and improve engines, bikes, airplanes, rockets, etc., and to improve our understanding of the world around us. A show of hands clearly suggested that this visit made students eager to consider aerospace and mechanical engineering as a career choice. We could not have been happier about this!” said Professor Julian Domaradzki, chair of the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.
Domaradzki and Professor Geoff Spedding opened the day with an overview of aerospace and mechanical engineering before the students headed out to begin their lab visits. USC undergraduate and graduate students, including members of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), volunteered to lead the high schoolers around the campus.
In the Biodynamics Lab, led by Zohrab A. Kaprielian Fellow in Engineering and Professor Eva Kanso, high school students learned about fluid and solid interactions through four different demonstrations, including observing how air flows around a rotating fidget spinner using a fog machine and lasers, and how sound waves can alter fluid flows.
PhD student Brendan Colvert (BS AE ’14, MS AE ’15), a member of the Biodynamics Lab, was happy to host the students. “What I really like about this kind of thing is that it gives these students an opportunity to come to a university and witness what we do, but at a level where they can see it and experience it. I think it’s important that they can see that they can be a part of regular science,” said Colvert.
In addition to major research facilities like the Dryden Wind Tunnel, the Water Channel and the Engine Lab, high schoolers were also able to explore student design/build project labs like the USC SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition Team and USC Formula SAE Racing, and hear from AME alumni, including Ian McCullough of SpaceX (BS ME ‘16), Rachel Morford of The Aerospace Corporation (BS and MS EE ‘07) and AME Advisory Board member Robyn Ringuette of Virgin Orbit.
“I think a big part of today is just seeing how the students react. What are they interested in? What are they intrigued by?” said Gabriel Aguilar, a teacher at Diamond Bar High School. “We took the teachers who I knew would get inspired from this and we’re going to go back and debrief and say, ‘How can we refine or redesign our course offerings rather than being stuck and doing what we’ve always done?’”
While, for Diamond Bar High School, the event signified the beginning of a relationship with VAST, the STEM Academy of Hollywood teacher and retired aerospace engineer Julian Lewis is in a five-year partnership with AME Assistant Professor Mitul Luhar.
“We met and we discussed a partnership and it was the perfect fit because I’m bringing the theory in the classroom and he’s actually doing all the practical stuff here. So, the kids here can see the hands on and the application of all the theory that they learn,” said Lewis. “I think this program and this particular outing today is going to have a major impact on how they embrace the material that I’m teaching them because I can see the lightbulbs coming on.”