Monday, February 23, 2009

Corrupting young minds

We thought it would be a good idea to bring the kids through my lab, take a bit of mystery out of the whole research process and everything. Naturally I had to spend last week stealing, err, borrowing cool toys from everywhere I could find so that there would be no shortage of things with blinking lights, buttons, dials, and shiny chrome. I knew that the disappearing glassware would be a hit (and wow did it ever confuse the hell out of the volunteers, never mind the kids!), and the robot, but I wasn't sure about the musical lab equipment (my new pride and joy, haha).

Turns out that the musical lab equipment stole the show! It is a very large, somewhat contraptiony looking... contraption that looks like it should be doing something veryimportant, not playing "Baa baa black sheep". One girl saw it and said she wanted to be a mechanical engineer! Hah! Yes!

The sad side of my nerdy life is that lots of things I think are really exciting (analog pinball machines, shiny things, function generators) aren't necessarily interesting to anyone else. It made my day that the girls thought musical lab equipment was awesome. Sometimes I just need a bit of reassurance that I have some sort of contact with reality.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Dear machine shop, I love you. I know we gave you short notice that we were bringing 60 or so kids through for a tour on a Saturday when you're not normally open, and we didn't have a time estimate until the week before. Apparently you weren't even sure what time the first group was going to show up (uh, oops). But I came in to give you advance warning while you guys were eating your lunch, and you promptly dropped your sandwiches and ran for your lives to turn things on. That's devotion. Even though you usually give tours to much older students, you put up with my incessant questioning and helped me explain everything in terms the kids would understand. You were friendly and approachable and the girls felt comfortable asking you questions. Oh, and you were so cool that the girls made a card as soon as they got back to the room about how cool machines are.

Stand-out moments:

  • Our older girls (grades 7-8) - They're usually harder to impress, but as we were walking above the shop they were practically begging for us to take them in there and show them around! I'm so happy to see them so excited about things! They were originally skeptical that the water jet cutter could cut steel (would I lie about that?) and when the pieces came out, they were so amazed that they had to pass them around and hold them for the rest of the day!

  • Grades 5-6: One of them said that her mom told her it isn't safe for girls to use power tools! They didn't get the chance to use any equipment themselves (helloooo safety!) but I hope that they gained something from seeing us use a bit of equipment and the projects we've made in the shop. Next year I'd like to do some more planning ahead of time and see if we can get the older girls using some of the simpler equipment.

  • Grades 3-4: I took the student vehicles apart that I was showing you before we got to that part of the tour so that you wouldn't be tempted to turn them on and hurt yourselves. I am impressed that you re-assembled a motor behind my back, put the shafts back in the gearbox, and turned it on. You are so brilliant. Why did you have to stick your finger in the gear box?

  • I also enjoyed when the shop staff asked this group if they had any questions. They spent the next several minutes listening to:

-a story about someone's cat

-questions about what kind of cars they drive

-another cat story

-a story about the moon

Pants-shitting moment:
  • I was looking down for a moment, and I noticed that one girl had these awesome toe-socks on. WAITAMINUTE! WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR SHOES? I think the shop staff would have had a heart attack if they had noticed her standing in that pile of metal shavings without shoes on.
Overall I think that the older girls gained the most from this experience. The younger ones were less impressed by some things because they didn't know how unusual or difficult they are to achieve. For them, it seems like everything is about equally unfamiliar, confusing, and interesting at the same time. The older ones were in awe of the water jet cutter and the 3D printer. The younger ones are pretty sure you can cut the moon (what IS it with the moon this week?) with a garden hose if you squirt it far enough and that their dad could make their home printer print out cheeseburgers if he tried hard enough.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing

While I get up to speed on the projects currently in development in my group, I get to brush up my (non-existant) C skills and learn a new programming language to build graphical interfaces for lab equipment and stuff. I think the plan is to build up to the point where I can design some big fancy interface that's going to record all of our data and not explode itself. For now, I'm supposed to write a program that uses a serial port to send a string of data to a camera mount and moves it around.

Well, that's what I was doing. Then, in a moment of brilliance, I realized I could change the speed of the mount as it moves around, and now it plays songs. It uses a bunch of stepper motors to move around, and it hums quite a bit, which is possible to tune by changing how quickly it makes the steps. I am so proud of myself. My dad is coming down to visit in a few weeks and he is totally getting dragged into the lab to see. All the students I know that were in the building when I made my exciting discovery actually flocked in to the lab to see. I love engineers.

Some people would probably be mildly upset for wasting time while I was at work, but my supervisors were laughing so hard they didn't say anything, so I think I'm in the clear. I'm counting this as an "educational experience", I'm sure I learned something that will come in handy eventually.

Friday, February 6, 2009

I love you ladies

I'm so impressed by the volunteers with the girls' engineering club. I've never been involved in any project or group that functions so cohesively and effectively. Although I'd like to attribute this to the fact that there are no males volunteering, and hence less of a power struggle, it could just be that we all have similar interests and are really passionate about the group. It really feels like everything is falling into place, and we're using everyone's unique strengths to build a really neat program. When something needs to be done, someone steps up and does it before you even know there's a problem. After the kids leave, we sit around, eat cookies, and point out the positive things that we saw that day.

That being said, I still have some things to work on! I'm having trouble remembering more than 5 names at a time (and there are 30? girls in the room!) and I don't always watch my vocabulary as closely as I should. But I think I did a pretty good job with names this time, and I tried to bring up specific awesome things that the kids did in front of their parents ("your daughter has an impressive technical vocabulary! I never knew what that stuff meant until university" "so-and-so came up with a great solution to today's engineering challenge, it was the only one to pass XXX criteria" ).

Last time the girls were still kind of quiet and awkward around each other but this time there's a lot more socialization going on and everyone is getting included in the group activities (except the girl who doesn't listen to anything anyone says ever but she seemed happy grabbing random things she wasn't supposed to and ignoring instructions and gluing stuff to other stuff).

I am guilty of staying out of the nitty gritty details of the planning thus far, but soon is MECHANICAL ENGINEERING DAY. Uhh, is it wrong to be competitive about volunteering? Because mechanical engineering is great and I think the kids need to know that.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

You go girl!

I was really excited to find out that there's a new group starting on campus that's going to bring 60 or so girls to campus each week and teach them about engineering. I love working with kids and explaining why science is SO AWESOME. The group is going to run every Saturday this semester as a club for girls who want to learn more about engineering. Since it's a club, there's less pressure to always be doing an activity, we can kick back sometimes, have a lot of one-on-one interaction with the kids, and get to know them better than if it was set up as a camp or a seminar or something. There's also a lot more room for trial and error, ask the girls what they enjoy, what they want to see more of, and what isn't really catching their interest.

The volunteers are SO GREAT! I can't believe how smoothly our preparations have gone so far and how friendly everyone is. Everyone is super passionate, giving up every Saturday of your semester is no tiny feat. Not just that but you have to be "on" the whole time the kids are there, you can't really just abandon everyone and go off somewhere to chill for a bit, and it's not very encouraging to the girls if you start complaining about your courses/homework/whatever.

It's really neat to work with a group of people from all the different disciplines of engineering that we have here. Each week we're going to focus on a different field of engineering, and we're already starting to flesh out possible activities, tours, and guest speakers. There are so many neat things to learn here that you might never find out about if nobody told you! I hope we can pass on our passions to the girls and to the other volunteers.
I tend to veer off on tangents. Pick your tangent from the menu on the right.