Explore Engineering 2018 bridges music and science for high school students from across the country

Explore Engineering 2018
Erica Chu (left) and Mari Woodworth work on their abacuses during Explore Engineering 2018 at Sweet Briar.

If you were near the engineering lab in Guion Science Center last Wednesday, you probably heard two things: the soothing sounds of Disney songs floating through the room, and bells jingling. The former was a playlist; the latter a piece of the main project in this year’s Explore Engineering Design Course for High School Girls.

Wednesday was a big day for the students. After touring the local GLAD facility in the morning, the 17 participants — along with Sweet Briar faculty and students — headed to Lowe’s and Goodwill to shop for all of the extras they’d need to design and build automated, interactive musical instruments. Earlier in the week, they had made abacuses to learn how to use shop tools; gotten a crash course in circuits; and learned about physical computing and mechatronics, as well as how to program an Arduino microcontroller. Now they were ready for the big project.

That afternoon, they got started: working in teams of two, students were sketching, experimenting and testing at tables or clustered around the computers along the wall, starting to write the code that would make their design work.

In the middle of it all: engineering professor Bethany Brinkman, who directs the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, and Kaelyn Leake ’09, an assistant professor of engineering — along with student assistants Rosa Bello ’20 and Rylee Runyon ’20. They were on hand to answer questions and help troubleshoot all week. But most of the time, they were there to encourage participants to find their own answers.

Ferrell and Glancy Explore Engineering
Sasha Ferrell (foreground) and her teammate, Liliana Glancy, work on writing code for their water-floating device.

At one point, Liliana Glancy, 16, of Fairfax, holding a square piece of acrylic glass, asks, “How do we cut this?”

“What do you think?” Brinkman replies.

Glancy and her teammate, Sasha Ferrell, 17, from Houston, Texas, think out loud for a few minutes. “Go slow and don’t be weirded out if it reforms,” Brinkman advises before Glancy and Ferrell head over to the machine shop.

This is Explore Engineering’s 10th year, with participants from California, Texas, Indiana, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia. Over the last decade, Sweet Briar — one of just two women’s colleges in the country to offer an ABET-accredited engineering degree — has hosted 500 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors from all over the Unites States in its weeklong summer and its weekend fall and spring Explore Engineering events. A significant percentage end up enrolling at the College later — like recent grad Mackenzie Crary ’18, who served as an overnight RA for the event and stopped in Wednesday to see how things were going in the lab.

Brinkman and student
Prof. Bethany Brinkman helps student Rachel-Elizabeth Gaspar Frantz with her abacus.

Back at Glancy and Ferrell’s table, a large drawing shows what looks like a sewing machine. It’s going to have floating sensors in water — as the water moves, the sensors will be activated and produce piano-like sounds. The glass is used as a divider to separate the sensors so the water doesn’t bounce into other sensors, Glancy explains.

“I’m so excited!” Ferrell says. “Me too!” agrees Glancy, adding she came up with the idea for the instrument when someone mentioned floating sensors. “I was like, I want to float something in water, and I want to hear music.”

“I’m just the idea supporter,” Ferrell says, laughing.

“No, you’re the troubleshooter, too,” Glancy argues.

They are getting ready to start programming their device using Arduino — a basic computer program. Both have prior engineering experience. Glancy attended Sweet Briar’s Explore Engineering weekend in the spring while Ferrell — whose sister Des’rae Davis ’17 is a graduate of Sweet Briar’s engineering program — has done a biomedical engineering course in Texas. It’s what she wants to study in college. “I would love to help veterans,” she says. Glancy is interested in studying aeronautical engineering at the Air Force Academy.

Kaelyn Leake, Galdo and Chambi Explore
Engineering professor Kaelyn Leake checks on friends Valeria Galdo (left) and Nathalie Chambi.

Two tables over, Arlington natives and friends Valeria Galdo and Nathalie Chambi, both 17, are getting to work on a mobile alarm clock.

“You have to physically get up because it rolls around your room,” explains Galdo. They came up with it together, they say.

It’s the first Explore course for both, though they’ve attended Johns Hopkins University’s Engineering Innovation camp. But they haven’t quite settled on engineering as a future major yet, says Chambi. “We’re still exploring the definition of engineering,” she adds. Both agree that the engineering design course has been very informative. Chambi’s favorite part so far: “Learning how to work with circuit boards.”

By Friday, drawings, codes and parts have been turned into actual, working — or semi-working — instruments, all in the course of a few days.

“More than anything else, this week is about giving students the tools they need to create something unique completely on their own,” Brinkman says. “It’s really fulfilling for the students to look at their final projects and think about all the different things they learned in the span of just a week — rapid prototyping, programming with Arduino, how to use the machines in the shop — all to get from Point A to Point B.”