By Katharine Webster
Fifteen curious fifth-graders gathered around mechanical engineering major Courtney Britko in the library of Sullivan Middle School as she and two classmates talked about printed circuit boards and what it’s like to be an engineer.
When she asked, “Can you name something you use that has a circuit board in it?” a couple of hands went up. After the first couple of tentative responses — “my cell phone” and “the TV remote” — the answers came quick-fire.
After explaining the lifecycle of printed circuit boards, from choosing the materials through manufacture and disposal or recycling, to five different groups, Britko and her classmates were a bit breathless, but beaming.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Britko, a sophomore from Westford. “They were amazed that anyone could do this, and they were amazed that there are so few women in engineering.”
“They were more interested than I expected,” added Ali Ramadan, a junior from Fitchburg. “One kid already knew all about circuit boards.”
The visit was part of a service-learning project involving 167 undergraduates in nine sections of Materials Science for Engineers. The students worked in teams of three or four to create posters about the lifecycle of materials used in everyday objects and then visited one of four Lowell middle schools, the after-school program at Girls Inc. or the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell.
Altogether, they reached about 400 schoolchildren, said Linda Barrington, service-learning coordinator for the Francis College of Engineering. They were invited to work with middle-school children by Martha Cohn, head of the science and social studies curriculum for the Lowell public schools.
“She’s trying to get kids interested in science and engineering in middle school, before they have to pick their high school curriculum,” Barrington said.
The learning goes both ways, said Assoc. Prof. Emmanuelle Reynaud, who taught the two Materials Science sections that visited Sullivan Middle School. Sections taught by visiting Prof. Arcan Dericioglu and Asst. Prof. Scott Stapleton also participated in the service-learning project.
“One of the learning objectives for the class is for them to practice talking about technology with a non-technical audience,” Reynaud said. “Another is environmental awareness, so they have to look at whether the materials can be recycled or how to dispose of them.”
The fifth-grade science classes and the STEM Club at Sullivan Middle School learned about materials used in skateboard decks, earbuds, cellphone screens and the soles of sneakers, among other things. The engineering majors also had to include something personal about themselves on their posters to open up conversations about college.
Ramadan urged the girls to study math and science so they could go into engineering, telling them more women are needed in the field.
“One girl said, ‘I’m not going to college. I don’t have any money,’” he said. “At first, I was dumbfounded. Then I said, ‘I was the same way. But I went to community college and I worked really hard, I applied for scholarships, and I worked a job to help pay for it. If you want to do it, you can.’”
Lorenzo Chiodi, a sophomore from Stoneham who explained how metal cellphone casings are manufactured, had an easy rapport with the kids.
“The students seemed extremely involved,” he said afterward. “It’s a wonderful thing when you ask a question and you see all their hands go up.”
Chiodi, who is taking classes at Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell this semester so he can transfer full time to the university, shared some of his struggles. He also spoke about his lifelong interest in engineering.
“I knew mechanical engineering was my passion — the whole idea of having someone approach me with a problem and figuring out a way to solve that problem to benefit the most people possible,” he said.
The big payoff for Chiodi and his group came when the bell rang and the fifth-graders were heading out of the library.
“This little girl scurried up to the table and handed us a piece of paper that said ‘Thank you’ in crayon with this smiley face on it. That was really rewarding,” he said. “It was so amazing to work with young minds and be able to spark that fire inside of them.”