“This is not rocket science,” joked mechanical engineering major and rocket enthusiast Giancarlo Lombardi as he passed around a small test rocket to a group of middle schoolers. “All we’re really using is basic algebra and calculus.”
Calling two students to the front of the classroom to run an experiment, Lombardi and fellow mechanical engineering major Shane Colon set up balloons to demonstrate the basic principle of thrust: the larger of the two balloons travelled farther when the air was let out because it had more air inside of it, thus creating more pressure and more potential energy. Rocket propulsion works much the same way.
Lombardi and Colon, both members of the FIU student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, gave demonstrations to more than 1,500 elementary, middle and high school students at the recent FIU Engineering Expo sponsored by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ryder System and Atkins North America.
Held at FIU’s Engineering Center, the event showcased degree programs offered by the College of Engineering & Computing, in addition to its well-appointed facilities and various student organizations, to get youngsters interested in STEM studies and encourage them to consider FIU for college.
“It’s great that they’re getting exposed to engineering and they can see all the different types of engineering,” said Ferguson High School teacher Mike Weiss. “It gives them potential, options, and it gives them choices.”
Weiss’ science club students came to the expo to explore computer science and biomedical engineering, which were the top interests among his group of 10th and 11th graders.
“I came here to get an idea of what studying biomedical engineering is really like,” said 10th grader Briana Morales, who has known since eighth grade that she wants to study biomedical engineering. That’s when she won first place in a robotics competition for a robotic hand she built herself. She took special interest in the prosthetics lab, where FIU students demonstrated how they’re trying to program prosthetic limbs to move by receiving impulses though muscles from the central nervous system.
The “Learn to Code” demonstration hit home for 10th grader Celimar Rosales, who takes dual-enrollment courses through FIU at her school. Although she had already learned in class the basic coding skills shown at the expo, she enjoyed the hands-on activity that followed: coding a small “Frozen” character to move around on the computer screen.
The Wall of Wind, FIU’s hurricane simulator capable of producing 160 mph winds, rain and turbulence, was, however, Rosales’ favorite visit of the day, as it was for most who attended the expo.
“It was the first time I was exposed to civil engineering,” Rosales said. “The fact that they hold these hurricane experiments on campus is cool.”
Biomedical engineering junior Sebastian Marquez, who served as a guide, said the expo gives young students a chance to get excited about STEM and see the kinds of hands-on things they can do every day in a career in engineering.
“I think that kind of acting like parents and guiding them in the right steps is very important,” Marquez said. He reveled in showing the youngsters “that engineering is a huge part of everyday life, and that it’s another opportunity they can take.”
For many students, the Engineering Expo is more than just one day a year. Last year, funded by a gift from the Chrysler Foundation and the The Bosch Community Fund, the college launched FIU Engineers on Wheels, a specially-outfitted high-tech van that visits many of the same South Florida schools to provide students with hands-on activities and engineering experiments, continuing the work that begins at the Engineering Expo.