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UMass Summer Engineering Institute Inspires, Educates, and Enlightens 43 High School Participants

This summer 43 high school students from 13 states and countries participated in the two-week Summer Engineering Institute (SENGI) here on campus as taught by 22 faculty and staff, 10 graduate students, and three graduate and undergraduate mentors, all from the College of Engineering. The purpose of the SENGI coursework was for students to gain a broad understanding of engineering through an introduction to biomedical, chemical, environmental, structural, transportation, industrial, mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering.

The director of the SENGI program is Assistant Dean Paula Rees, the head of the Engineering Community, Equity, and Inclusion (CEI) Hub.

As Rees told the students about the program before it started, “We’ll introduce you to core engineering concepts and some of the programs commonly used in engineering curriculum across the country. You will get a taste of what it feels like to be an engineering student. Ideally, this will serve you well as you explore future career options and college majors.”

The theme of the institute was “engineering design, innovation, and entrepreneurship.” It was a multi-faceted program that allowed students to explore how engineers envision creative and practical solutions that benefit the everyday lives of people and the communities where they live. Students were exposed to numerous and varied topics and the application of many science and engineering principles.

Various engineering disciplines were examined through faculty presentations, guided discovery, hands-on design activities, and much more. Practicing professional and research engineers, most of whom were faculty members, also led projects, tours, and labs with the assistance of current undergraduate engineering students. In addition, SENGI students went on field trips geared toward technical learning, team building, and enrichment activities. Students also engaged in group research projects and presentations.

“In addition to introducing a variety of engineering skills and disciplines through discussions and hands-on activities, you will delve a little bit deeper into the engineering design process as part of a team,” as Rees told her charges. “To do so, you will be asked to select a group project to complete. Each project will have a set goal, but how your team approaches it will differ from other teams. On the last day of the Institute, all the groups will share their work.”

As an example, one team project involved doing a “Wearable Health Monitor Evaluation,” conducted under the leadership of Professor Jenna Marquard and graduate student Peter Frackleton, both from the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department. This project was based on the premise that, within the last decade, wearable technology has become a dominant means of collecting one’s own health data. In this project students were tasked with collecting data using a number of different wearables and analyzing what is collected by each one and how this data is presented. Comparisons on the accuracy and presentation of results led to an open discussion on why some devices might be more accurate than others.

Another example was studying an “Eco Jar,” or closed terrarium, a project conducted by Rees and graduate student Meenakshi Upadhyaya of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. In this project, teams of students examined the intricate workings of a biosphere bottle, a closed system that forms a wonderful model of the Earth and the biosphere, in which no significant amounts of matter enter or leave, but energy is absorbed and radiated freely. Biological processes recycle most of the matter in the bottle, just like on planet Earth.

Hence, the biosphere bottle has its own climate, water cycle, carbon, and nitrogen cycles, and other ecological systems that achieve a balance over time. The bottle also has its own unique biodiversity, which includes plants, animals, and soil organisms. The students built and programmed sensors to track the performance of their jars. They also learned how environmental engineers manipulate the cycles represented in the jar, such as to treat water and wastewater, or to clean up contaminated groundwater sites.

To illustrate the educational and inspirational impacts of the SENGI program on students, the parent of one participant told Rees, “I'm writing to thank you for the wonderful experience my daughter Sarah had at the Summer Engineering Institute over the last few weeks. She came home totally energized about studying engineering in general and the disciplines that most interested her, which were exactly the goals that you set when you talked with the parents on day one. She also came home with UMass Amherst at the top of a very strong list of potential colleges, so well done! Seeing the summer institute through her eyes has made me wish we could do something similar for future law students. Someday, perhaps.”

Another parent summed up the learning experience for his child quite nicely by writing to Rees, “You have no idea how happy this email makes me. Thank you so much for all you do to inspire him.” (October 2019)