Engineering 101 Community Project Inspires Community, Compassion and Diversity

In an exciting and collaborative effort to inspire young people to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to increase diversity in engineering, first year students from the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering teamed up with middle school students from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School (OLSH) to co-develop robotic car kits.

The vision was for the Engineering 101 students, led by instructor Jason Partin, to immerse themselves in community and develop their own engineering skills while providing resources, inspiration to both learn and teach and 21st Century skills that are valuable and affordable for any school. The interdisciplinary project incorporated mechanical, software, electrical and industrial engineering components.

The USD engineering students had to learn the fundamental skills of each discipline then apply them in the real-world situation of meeting the needs of their customers, which in this case were middle school kids from the inner city of our community. Most importantly, the Engineering 101 project tied seamlessly into the University’s mission and values of compassionate service and global competency. The goal was to spread positive energy, encouragement and compassion so that others see the connectivity of our world and the importance of service-based learning.

In effect, the program was designed to develop USD engineering skills by creating a community-driven, socially responsible project that could empower kids from any socio-economic walk of life to compete in a global economy. To achieve these ends, OLHS was the perfect partner for the community project. Our Lady of Sacred Heart is a K-8 Catholic school, which was founded in City Heights in 1927. Demographics changed and City Heights became the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in San Diego, with more than 50 languages spoken, the highest crime rate in San Diego, a median household income of $24,000 and a high school graduation rate of 65%. OLSH is a Title 1 school with more than 80% of students on free or reduced lunch programs based on being below the poverty line. Their families send them to a Catholic School with hopes of overcoming their challenges and achieving their potentials.

“As a private Catholic school in the center city, we are one of 5 or 6 faith-based schools making a big difference in the lives of these families for generations to come,” explains Christina Alton, Principal of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School. “Even though we are located in San Diego, many of our families’ living conditions are similar to the developing world context. The fact that we visited the University of San Diego, participated with USD Engineering students and faculty, and most importantly created relationships with people that we would have never had access to in our daily lives, is priceless. I hope that we continue to have opportunities like these.“

Over a six-week timeframe, the engineering students developed robot prototypes using Arduino micro-controllers that interact with the physical world without needing a computer after initial programming. The kits are low cost and applications are unlimited after learning the basic technology, including interactive music and art projects, automated food systems to reduce water usage and feed a growing population, and interactive devices for gaming, mobility enhancement and medical aides.

“Introducing Arduino micro-controllers at this young age gives these students a beneficial view into what these controls can actually do,” claims Mark Mollica, a first year USD engineering student and project participant. “By the time they get to high school or college, they will be far more ahead than we are now.”

The engineering students immersed themselves in classroom work using Solidworks design software, laser cutter prototype machines in the Engineering Fabrication Lab, and 3D printers at USD’s Donald’s Garage, a new tinkering space in the School of Engineering. Once a week, they visited OLSH to test design concepts and received user-feedback from the Sacred Heart students.

The USD engineering students then had a week to work on the design improvements before returning to OLSH. This iterative design process was a learning objective of Engineering 101, and having a real-world audience created an authentic educational experience that has been shown to increase student engagement and long-term learning. The community benefit was an added bonus to encourage empathy and to appreciate the opportunities provided at SMSE.

“The program gave the middle school students a voice, it engaged them. I admired their creativity,” comments Gunay Cital, also a first year USD engineering student and participant of the project. “Though some of their ideas were beyond the scope of the project, like programming a robot to do their homework, we never shot down their ideas. The project got them interested in engineering by using hands-on interactivity to create tangible objects that would encourage these students to consider engineering as a future.”

Instructor Jason Partin comments, “I’ve worked with at-risk youths and education programs in City Heights for ten years and appreciate the unique opportunity at OLSH to implement change. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School has motivated kids and dedicated staff, but limited resources and declining revenue. Despite these challenges, the staff has created a nurturing environment. They also put together an engineering club just for the SMSE Engineering 101 class, dedicated extra hours to making it happen while simultaneously addressing challenges of their neighborhood and building other programs at their school such as theater, art and entrepreneurship. I was happy when my Engineering 101 class volunteered to accept the challenge of working with OLSH, and ecstatic when I saw them having fun and spending extra hours in SMSE labs to ensure that teams fulfilled their end of the collaboration with OLSH.”

The community service program was voluntary for the USD students and opened up their eyes and hearts to a student population with whom they may not have typically engaged. Similarly, this was voluntary for OLSH students. It opened their minds to the possibilities of engineering and showed them that they were already capable of speaking to college students as peers. This was an important realization because college is seen as unobtainable by many families in underserved populations, so not just to visit a college campus, but to also present their projects with university students and speak about their work on television could be a life-changing experience.

Mollica explains, “It was cool working with the middle schoolers, seeing their ideas and attitudes. The inspiration was there. But a couple of the OLSH students mentioned how they had no idea what college was and were amazed that we live on campus. I could tell their background was limited, but they were all bright.” He continues, “Opening up the concept of college was huge for them. After seeing their facility, I couldn’t wait for them to see our facility and inspire them to think, ‘Wow! I could be there some day!’ It gives them hope.”

Upon completion of the robot kits, the middle school students visited the USD campus at the Fall 2015 the Engineering Expo, where the USD-OLSH project teams were able to demonstrate their robots at the event. It was exciting for all participants and was highlighted by news coverage of the collaborative project. Chell Roberts, Dean of Engineering, summarized the project at the Expo, “It’s that one exciting project for that one exciting moment that makes you believe you can do it - to believe you can do engineering or science, or computing, or any of the STEM disciplines. This is the place where you really get that excitement and set your path.”

The community project was coordinated with the support of the USD Department of Ministry, which provided shuttle vans to visit OLSH each week, and the Office of the Provost, which provided a grant used to build a miniature Donald’s Garage innovation lab at OLSH that had tools for collaborative work on the project. The project was democratically chosen as a compassionate service project by the first year engineering student participants. The students wrote reflections throughout the project to articulate why they believe in community service while in college and how they feel that the real-world deliverables of this project would motivate them to learn classroom concepts.

The impact of this pilot program was profound. When asked how the Sacred Heart students inspired Mark Mollica, he explains, “I really wanted to exceed the OLSH students’ expectations. It was all about meeting the user’s needs, so we catered to them. It pushed me more to make the best robot for them.”

“This one class changed my whole perspective on engineering,” claims Gunay Cital. “I was skeptical because of the amount of physics and math, but Jason brought out a different dimension to the engineering approach. This compassionate, hands-on approach gets students engaged and will encourage more students to go down the road of engineering.“

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