To 10-year-old Emily Lam, power switches simply existed. She never gave much thought to how they work — or how to build one. Until her first day at DesignCamp. In the decade that’s followed since then, she’s built countless switches — using everything from paperclips to clothespins.
Lam, currently studying engineering at Boston University, was one of the first students to participate in DesignCamp. Founded in 2000 by Doug Prime and former engineering Dean Krishna Vedula, the DesignCamp program has grown into the Future Engineers Center (FEC), a teaching lab that serves as an umbrella for the College of Engineering
’s K-12 education and outreach activities. Since its creation, the center’s programs have enriched the education of more than 2,000 students from Lowell and its surrounding communities.
“We work with outstanding students who are used to learning through instructions. They know to follow step 1 and step 2 to get to step 3,” says Michael Penta, associate director and program developer for the center. “In our workshops, when they ask what the next step is I say, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ We give them ownership of their projects.”
After several years of summer camps, lesson kit creation, teacher workshops and after-school programs, Penta and Prime have decided to focus mainly on students in grades 6 through 9, believing that getting students interested in engineering before high school is vital to student success. And making engineering fun is vital to piquing students’ interest.
“We make the lessons so much fun that the students don’t realize they’re learning,” says Penta, describing after-school Idea Academy classes that cover electronics, programming and design. For instance, students recently what they’ve learned to scare visitors with animatronic creations they placed throughout a haunted house in Coburn Hall.
In the next set of classes, Idea Academy students will learn more about electronics and math by building carnival games, food dispensers and video games. Students weren’t excited for the applied geometry class until they learned more about the final project, a laser light show, Penta says.
Inspiring Young Engineers
Living up to its name, the Future Engineers Center has produced many students intent on careers in science. Like Lam, Cristian Bedoya came to engineering after joining the program in middle school. After several years of classes with Prime, Bedoya graduated third in his high school class and earned a full scholarship to Northwestern University, where he is studying electrical engineering. He credits the program and staff with much of his success.
“I really enjoyed making ‘something out of nothing’ and creating projects that I never thought I could build as a middle school student,” says Bedoya. “The FEC programs gave me the opportunity to put into practice the principles I learned in school. Designing, building, testing and implementing project-based solutions really boosted my problem solving skills.”
Lam, who always enjoyed science and math in school but didn’t know anything about engineering when she joined DesignCamp, also believes the program helped define her path.
“I can't think of anything else I've done that has defined me more than the FEC programs,” she says. “I was the kid who really enjoyed creating things but didn't know that I was engineering at the time. FEC introduced me to engineering and is the reason I picked it as my career.”
After years of participating in the center’s workshops, both Bedoya and Lam still return to FEC as assistant teachers to introduce younger students to engineering.
“Emily and Cristian have been through every workshop and are often better at the hands-on lessons than experienced teachers,” says Penta.
“Doug and the rest of the staff at the FEC have been extremely supportive to me over the years. They’ve been there since day one encouraging me to do my best, strive for excellence and be the best person I can be,” says Bedoya. “I really hope to see their work at the Future Engineers Center grow and expand.”