LOWELL - A simple black cart at Girls Inc. holds the key to many lessons about renewable energy sources, engineering and design. It contains five solar panels, wind turbine pieces and other equipment assembled by UMass Lowell mechanical engineering students Katie Elwell and Benjamin Tran, who created the renewable energy "traveling classroom" for their senior capstone project.
Elwell, 22, of Tewksbury, said she was drawn to the project because of the service learning aspect.
For Tran, 21, of Quincy, it was his interest in renewable energy.
Both were intrigued by its ultimate goal of bringing more girls and women into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. "I work at the Boys & Girls Club in Billerica, and a lot of the younger girls there, when they're really little, they get very discouraged about math and sciences," Elwell said. "So having something like a fun project like this allows them to be able to get more interested and do fun activities while also learning at the same time."
The students were matched with the project through the assistance of Engineering Service-Learning Coordinator Linda Barrington and Juan Pablo Trelles, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering. It was partially funded by a grant Trelles obtained from the National Science Foundation for solar energy research.
For the wind energy component, Elwell and Tran created several kits for group work exploring the generation of wind power. Kids can try out 3D-printed wind turbine blades made of three different kinds of plastic, or design their own out of paper or card stock. They can calculate how the different materials affect power generation and capture data on wind speed and the amount of power it creates, Elwell said. The solar component includes five panels with adjustable angles to catch sunlight from different directions. They're connected to a battery and a power inverter, which includes outlets where they can plug in their phones and other devices to see real-life examples of how the power they generated is used, Tran said.
Girls Inc. of Greater Lowell Program Coordinator Pam Larocque said STEM and hands-on, project-based learning are vital parts of the organization's programming and they love opportunities to work with UMass Lowell and other community partners.
"This was a really unique and creative project, and it was something that's not only renewable energy but also a renewable learning source, something we could have on-site that would create learning opportunities for years to come," she said. Larocque said she looks forward to integrating the resource into programming this summer. She said she plans to have the older girls start experimenting with the wind turbines and the design process, and to use the solar panels to teach the younger girls about electricity and make them understand the energy coming into their homes "is valuable and it takes work to create."
Executive Director Tracy Ingersoll said Girls Inc. offers an environment where girls ages 5 to 18 can feel comfortable and engaged to experiment with STEM and "make mistakes and try again until they figure out how everything works." "Any time UMass Lowell students come in and work with the girls, it makes college much more attainable," she said. Ingersoll gave the example of an 18-year-old member who will go to college in the fall to become a biomedical engineer, a career she became interested in thanks to a decade of STEM activities at Girls Inc.
Elwell likes to share her love of engineering through activities she organizes as a resident advisor at River Hawk Village and through her involvement with eNable Lowell, a student club that 3D prints prosthetic devices for children for free. Tran took two graduate-level courses covering the cooling of electronic equipment and fundamentals of sustainable energy, and served as president of the Student Association of Chinese Americans this year. After graduation, Elwell will continue her education at UMass Lowell, pursuing a graduate degree in mechanical engineering project management with a focus in research and product development. Tran is looking for work in the energy industry and is considering becoming a teacher.