Future problem-solvers design, build and code their way through Explore Engineering projects

Morse code translater
Explore Engineering students built a glove that translates Morse code into text. “That thing was amazing,” said Professor Hank Yochum, who directs Sweet Briar’s engineering program.

It’s 3 o’clock on Wednesday, June 21, halfway through the weeklong Explore Engineering summer course at Sweet Briar College. Twenty-four high school students — rising sophomores, juniors and seniors from across the U.S. — are huddled around computers at Connie M. Guion Science Center.

They’re writing code and figuring out how to make things work — such as LEDs affixed to a T-shirt that light up the word “PARTY” when music is played nearby. It’s all part of the week’s major project: designing and creating “smart clothing.”

Rebecca Girten, project coordinator for Sweet Briar’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, describes smart clothing as “the intersection between electronics and clothing, essentially wearable devices.”

Mainstream examples include the Fitbit; Ringly, a line of fashion jewelry that works with various smartphone apps; and LED wristbands such as Xylobands, which are popular giveaways at music festivals and big concerts. “Smart clothing isn’t just accessories, though,” Girten said.

“For example, students who have worked on this project previously have built wearables such as running pants that automatically light up after dark to keep runners safe and shoes with sensors around all sides to help warn people with visual impairments that they’re about to walk into an obstruction.”

Student demonstrates water filtration system
Rose Murphy demonstrates a device that “sifts” water.

Sweet Briar’s Explore Engineering courses focus on the complete design process — from brainstorming to final product — and emphasize teamwork and creativity. Over the past eight years, participants have designed and built automated musical devices, sustainable building materials, automated refilling pet bowls, electromechanical drawing machines and optical bass guitars.

More than 400 students have attended Explore events, which are offered in the fall, spring and summer. Fall and spring courses are held on weekends. The summer course, offered for college credit, gives students a real taste of what it’s like to be a Sweet Briar student.

Students stay in the historic residence halls, eat meals at Prothro, and explore the forests and fields that make up the scenic 3,250-acre campus.

Beyond making smart clothing, participants this week learned how to use equipment in the machine shop, toured local engineering firm NovaTech, and participated in a panel discussion with Sweet Briar engineering alumnae.

“Students get a better sense of what different kinds of engineering looks like on a day-to-day basis and how the Sweet Briar degree prepared our alumnae for industry,” Girten said.

Fun activities are included, too, such as a boathouse cookout and movie night in the 1948 Theatre, complete with sodas and popcorn.

The high-schoolers came from as far away as California and as nearby as Lynchburg, Girten said.

“A handful are repeat attendees. One is a frequent attendee of the event series and three others participated in our ‘Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,’ in conjunction with the Google-sponsored Engineers Week Banquet in February.”

It was Rose Murphy’s fifth Explore event. It’s safe to say she’s a fan of engineering and the College.

“I really like the school, the programs, the people,” Murphy said. “I’ve enjoyed everything about it.”

She said when she first came to Sweet Briar in ninth grade, she hadn’t visited any other colleges, but immediately thought, “This one.” Since then, she’s visited other colleges but still wants to attend Sweet Briar after she graduates from high school next year.

Murphy, who lives on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and attended summer camp not too far from Aberdeen Proving Ground, said she wants to be an engineer. More specifically, she said, “I want to blow things up.”

For their project, Murphy and her partner designed a pair of gloves that translates Morse code into text. When you tap Morse code with your index finger, Murphy explained, a microcontroller — sort of a little computer — translates the dots and dashes into words displayed on an LCD screen.

Student presenting project
Explore participants demonstrate glasses that light up when it gets dark.

Murphy said they were programming the microcontroller using a “free source code” they found on the internet. “The code is for a 20-by-4 LCD screen. It’s 16-by-2 here,” she said. “We’ll have to make a couple of changes there.”

All of the smart clothing projects involved using microcontrollers. At the students’ disposal also were bins of vibrating cell phone motors, switches, LCDs, LEDs, wire, buzzers, heating pads and other items.

As of Wednesday, Hank Yochum, professor of engineering and physics and director of the engineering program, said some students were “still coming to terms” with what they were going to build. For example, “One group wanted to make socks that raise or lower in response to temperature, but were having a trouble getting the socks to move up and down.”

During the design-and-build process, engineering faculty and staff assist with computer programming, components and circuits, and equipment in the machine shop, among other things.

“We can teach them just enough of the skills to see that they can pull off some pretty neat projects,” Yochum said, noting that no prior knowledge or skill is necessary to participate in Explore — only an interest in engineering.

“We try to make projects that, if you had no experience you could have some success, or if you had experience you could do a more advanced project,” Yochum said. “We want to give them room to fail, succeed and gain confidence.

“We want [them] to have this ‘ah ha’ moment. ‘This device, I had no idea how it worked before.’ None of the projects are ‘Do exactly as we tell you.’ It makes it a little crazy, but it’s more compelling.”

Eleanor McArdle and Marina Pantner were working on the aforementioned “PARTY” T-shirt. When a sensor “hears” music, LEDs will flash the word, “PARTY,” McArdle, a rising junior from Connecticut, said.

Pantner, who attends E.C. Glass High School and Central Virginia Governor’s School for Science & Technology in Lynchburg, said a second sensor sewn into the shirt would make a buzzer pin play the 1990s club hit, “Everybody Dance Now.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, however, the buzzer feature was still up in the air. “We’re seeing how that’s going to do,” Pantner said.

Professor helping student
Prof. Bethany Brinkman helps Alora Dennis with her Drawdio project.

Asked what they liked most about Explore Engineering, McArdle said, “I like the people, campus and staff. They really want to help you.” After a pause, she added, “I like the coding part, too!”

“Oh yeah!” Pantner said, “Coding is really fun!”

McArdle said she’s considering a career in chemical engineering, while Pantner has been thinking about law or psychology. By midweek, however, Pantner said she might turn her sights on engineering.

“I love to learn,” she said. “Now, maybe I’m considering [engineering].”

Asked about what else they’d done that week, the pair — obviously fast friends — started talking over each other and finishing each other’s sentences. What could be gathered from the rapid-fire chatter included, “swam in the lake, cookout, scavenger hunt, stargazing, Zumba, watching ‘Mean Girls,’ hiking” and “We built a fort.”

Both McArdle and Pantner said they also enjoyed the free time they were given to investigate the campus.

Reminded that the program was more than half over, the pair erupted in disbelief. “Whoa! Crazy! Only two days left!” Pantner exclaimed, while McArdle lamented, “I don’t want to go back home!”

On Friday, the students gave presentations on their projects.

“I think we’re always impressed by the time we get to the design exhibition and we see the projects are mainly functional, and they really seem excited and are starting to gain confidence from their success,” Yochum said.

Murphy’s Morse Code-translating gloves were impressive. “That thing was amazing,” he said. “It was a really great device.”

Murphy’s team also completed a side project, a pair of LED pants. “They used a microcontroller and sewed LEDs into a pair of pants with a light-activated sensor,” Yochum said. “Their code basically turned the LEDs on and off depending on what the light level was.”

Students demonstrate automated socks.
The socks go up, but they don’t come down.

McArdle and Pantner’s “PARTY” T-shirt also was a success. “It worked great,” Yochum said. “The LEDs turned on from sound input. They also had a little music playing as part of their device and the LEDs responded to that. They would respond to any sound. That one totally worked.”

Remember the socks team?

“They did get their socks to go up and down,” Yochum said. “Well, they got them to go up. They stopped trying to get them to go down, but they went up.”

Sweet Briar’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program is one of only two ABET-accredited programs at a women’s college. Established in 2004, the first students enrolled the following year. Graduates have gone on to careers in defense, aerospace, nuclear, computer technology, banking and winemaking — with more than 90 percent working as engineers or studying engineering in a graduate program.

At 24 participants, 2017 was the biggest Explore summer course yet. In fact, Yochum said, all of the Explore Engineering programs have been popular. “The [academic year events] generally fill up before the registration deadline. For the spring weekend, 20 were on the waiting list.”

Since Explore Engineering launched in 2008, Sweet Briar’s environmental science, computer science and chemistry programs have started similar camps. “Now, multiple parts of Sweet Briar are doing this kind of ‘explore’ event,” Yochum said. “We’re talking about offering other programs that emphasize project-based learning and are fun but intensive.”

Registration is open for the fall Explore Engineering weekend, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10 and 11. “Some people have already registered,” Yochum said.

For more information about the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

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