An EngX participant gets a taste of virtual reality. (Photo/Valentina Suarez)

Science/Technology

Youngsters get their hands on virtual reality, cellphone microscopes and other engineering marvels

USC Viterbi-hosted EngX attracts students who want to be engineers

March 21, 2017 Zara Greenbaum

A throng of L.A. middle and high school students came to USC for Engineering Exploratorium, or EngX, a day of hands-on activities aimed at making engineering exciting for young people.

The event welcomed fifth- through 12th-graders to discover 10 immersive stations run by USC undergraduates, PhD students and industry engineers.

“The goal of the event is to introduce as many middle and high school kids as possible to engineering,” said Associate Professor Andrea Armani, the event organizer and holder of the Fluor Early Career Chair in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “I wanted to hold an inclusive event where everyone is welcome.”

EngX drew more than 1,000 students from around Los Angeles. It’s the second big outreach effort Armani and her students designed and hosted on the University Park Campus. In October 2015, the Lasers 4 Ladies event welcomed hundreds of middle and high school girls to participate in immersive optics activities.

“There’s been a surge in outreach events that leverage coding and robotics,” Armani said. “While it’s fabulous, it can incorrectly represent the possibilities of STEM education. It’s important to show students the range of opportunities.”

Lasers 4 Ladies was such a hit that Armani and her students launched EngX, expanding both their audience and capacity to host hundreds of additional youngsters. EngX wrapped up National Engineers Week, which ran from Feb. 19-25.

Air-powered ‘race cars’

One popular activity challenged students to create air-powered “race cars” using partially filled water bottles on wheels pressurized with bicycle pumps. Students had to balance the thrust-to-weight ratio of the car so that when the cork was removed, the car stopped as close as possible to the center of the target.

At another station, kids played with cellphone microscopes created on site using a 3-D printer and tiny lenses that magnify objects up to 50 times. Other popular activities included a giant Jenga game and a robotic ball that students could guide through a maze using a smartphone app.

After snapping a photo of his 14-year-old son at the robotics station, Antonio Saunders explained why they came to the event.

“He’s been interested in engineering from a young age, so I wanted to give him the opportunity to see it in action,” said Saunders, who has an engineering degree himself and is proud that his son may follow in his footsteps.

Pursuing a PhD

Armani encourages the 15 USC undergraduates in her lab to participate in outreach efforts; they often connect naturally with middle and high-schoolers because they’re close in age. These interactions can be impactful for the USC students, too.

“Many undergraduates who have done research in my lab were originally planning to pursue a career in the industry,” Armani said. “As a result of their research experience and of working with students during outreach events, they changed their career paths and decided to pursue a PhD.”

Alexa Hudnut, a third-year PhD student in Armani’s lab, said working with young students helps keep her grounded as she completes her degree.

I love having the opportunity to take a step back and remember how I got here, and to share that inspiration with others.

Alexa Hudnut

“Sometimes we’re so focused on our work, we get stuck in what we’re doing,” she said. “I love having the opportunity to take a step back and remember how I got here, and to share that inspiration with others.”

The pay-it-forward mentality drives Armani as well.

“No one in my family was an engineer, so without my college mentors, I would never have gotten my PhD in engineering,” she said.

“As a faculty member, I believe one of the most important roles I can play is to inspire students to pursue a career in my field.”

EngX was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and USC Viterbi.