Published: Aug. 10, 2023 By
First Photo

By engaging with high schoolers through hands-on learning and real-world problem solving, graduate students in mechanical engineering are aspiring to get younger generations excited about STEM fields.

Through a partnership between the K-12 Outreach Group and Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver, a group of graduate students recently visited the high school to lead an engineering project with first-year students. The high schoolers then made a fieldtrip to the CU Boulder campus to visit a handful of research labs.

“We try to encourage students to think about science and engineering as a career opportunity,” K-12 Outreach leader and graduate student Shreya Venkatesh said. “But we also want to show them that engineering is more than planes, trains and automobiles. It’s about human health, too.”

The high schoolers had to build a prosthetic leg and test its durability. Venkatesh and other graduate students gave lectures on principles like stress, strain and strength, while also giving them some design models from which to base their own prototype.

By using materials like cardboard, wooden dowels, tape and zip ties, the student teams built their own prosthetic leg according to their own decision-making processes and design strategies.

“They’re learning as much about teamwork as they’re learning about engineering,” Arrupe physics teacher Jesus Tiscareno said.

The student teams then tested their designs by seeing how far they could walk on it along a hallway and up a flight of stairs. 

“Rather than just having students read some material and try to understand ideas that way, it’s best to demonstrate it,” Tiscareno said. “Actions speak louder than words.”

Arrupe serves students with limited economic resources in Denver. The independent school focuses on building community partnerships by having students intern at local businesses one day per week.

The K-12 Outreach Group considers itself part of the school’s community-building ethos and has been working with Arrupe Jesuit High School since summer 2021, when the high schoolers built mouse trap race cars. Last year, they built insect-inspired robots and learned the basics of coding.

After this year’s students tested the durability of their prosthetic legs, they visited the CU Boulder campus to see what engineering research looks like in real life and get a feel for what it’s like to be a college student as well.

They visited Alaa Ahmed’s Neuromechanics Lab, Alena Grabowski’s Applied Biomechanic’s Lab, Robert MacCurdy’s Matter Assembly Lab and Kaushik Jayaram’s Animal Inspired Movement and Robotics Laboratory.

While testing out a lot of the equipment in the labs, the first-year high schoolers learned that engineering is a lot more than gears, cogs and wheels.

“A lot of the students said they had fun building their prosthetic legs and visiting the labs,” Venkatesh said. “One student said they learned engineering isn’t for them, but they also learned they could go to college. And that’s just as big of a win as anything else.”