Recent mechanical engineering graduate Rachel Harris wanted to cap off her senior year with an engineering outreach experience for summer 2021. Inspired by her work as an undergraduate assistant in the college’s Maker Lab, she decided to design her own program and take it to the world.
Through some connections in El Paso, Texas, Harris reached out to a children’s home in Mexico, enlisted her fellow mechanical engineering senior Sean Meier, and set out to teach STEM activities to a group of students ages 7–16.
“I developed most of the material we used, and Sean provided a lot of the supplementary printed robot-part CADs,” she said. “We ended up modifying what we taught the kids pretty often throughout our time there, based on their interests and the speed at which they picked stuff up.”
Concepts in her course included electricity and wiring, 3D printing, waves, building, use of CAD, subtractive manufacturing, and a good dose of safety training. They helped each student build their own robots, explore CAD using Onshape software, and then 3D print their own designs. Some students also learned the basics of game design (using Unity), programming (using Arduino), and applied for colleges.
The language barrier was one of the biggest challenges that called upon their ability to modify their approach on-the-go.
“We both speak a little Spanish, and most of the older kids spoke English,” said Harris. “But some of the terminology we used was hard to communicate, especially explaining technical concepts.”
Harris and Meier felt rewarded in their efforts as they witnessed their students catch the excitement for STEM and grow in their confidence.
“It was a very humbling experience for me, personally,” said Meier. “Some of the kids we worked with were very smart, but they probably don’t have the same level of resources that I had available to me at their age.”
A favorite moment for him came as he was showing the students how to use OnShape to make anything they wanted.
“One of the kids decided they wanted to make a model of my hand, and also drew a stick figure of me on it,” he said. “It turned out surprisingly well.”
Likewise, Harris felt a personal impact from the experience.
“This wasn’t my first time teaching robotics and 3D printing to kids who wouldn’t get a chance to learn about it otherwise,” she said. “But it definitely was a good data point supporting my goal to have an open makerspace situated to give people from all backgrounds a safe place to learn to create.”
They credit a lot of their preparedness for this adventure to participation in UT’s IEEE robotics team, and to mentorship from Matthew Young, the Rosenberg Associate Professor of Practice in mechanical engineering.
“We have both gotten experience with not only the mechanical aspects of robotics, but also the electrical and software aspects and how they all fit together,” said Harris. “Dr. Young was very helpful; through the CAD class we took with him and by supporting me in some of the prep work.”
Teaching STEM concepts and practices to the young students gave Harris and Meier valuable lessons in return—such as the importance of knowing their field and maintaining the adaptability of an engineer.
“It’s easy to get almost lost in the complexity of higher level engineering courses, but we were able to explain some of the same things we’ve learned to 9-year-olds, just in simpler terms,” said Harris. “The kids asked a lot of insightful questions, so Sean and I had to really know what we were talking about to answer them well.”
Following graduation, Harris started a position as a robotics engineer with Starfish Space in Seattle, where she will build satellite-servicing space robots. Meier took a position as an electromechanical engineer for Electrolux in Charlotte, North Carolina. He feels that he might want to return to academia in the future.
“One reason that this project interested me was that I love teaching,” said Meier. “I have discovered that from my time tutoring at the UT Success Center. This project reinforced the idea that I could be a physics teacher.”
It’s a shining example of the dividends that return through sharing the Volunteer Spirit.