A dozen Waipahu High School students spent part of their summer designing and building little cars that are programmed to move with the flex of a bicep muscle.
The technology, which has real-world applications for prosthetic devices, was the focus of an intensive four-week summer program that exposed students to the mechanical, electrical and biomedical engineering fields.
“We got to learn about different engineering principles and we put them together and created a little robot,” said upcoming Waipahu High junior Chase Kaseli. “The robot itself is controlled by muscle sensors on your biceps and when it feels the motion it’ll send a little signal to the robot and it’ll tell which wheel to move. It controls which way you go depending on what arm you send the signal with.”
The idea for the “muscle car” project came from a Waipahu graduate majoring in biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering who wanted to introduce high-schoolers back home to the world of engineering.
Dolly Ricapor, a 2014 Waipahu alumna studying at Colorado State University, adapted a project from her college club into the curriculum for the summer program, giving students a dose of college-level lessons in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Each student built a muscle car (with parts valued at $200) for free thanks to funding from GEAR UP Waipahu. Some of the students recently demonstrated their projects at a national GEAR UP conference in Washington, D.C.
“The end goal for me was for the students to learn more about what they want to do in the future, what they want to major in in college, and also to teach them skills pertaining to engineering and STEM,” Ricapor said.
Upcoming Waipahu High junior Nicole Aguinaldo said she initially wasn’t interested in signing up for the program but she credits the experience with helping her discover a passion for engineering.
“At first I didn’t want to (participate) because I would be busy over the summer. But in the end I just went for it to see what kind of engineer I want to be in the future,” Aguinaldo said.
She’s still interested in a future career in information technology or computer science.
“So although it doesn’t really touch base with any of the engineering that I learned in this program, it made me realize that I could add those components in my career field,” Aguinaldo said.
She said she hopes other students have the opportunity to participate in a similar program.
“I know a lot of us tend to not know what we want to be in the future,” she said. “Having this program allows them to see what they want to do in a STEM career if they’re really interested.”
Kaseli credits the summer program with reinforcing his plans to study biomedical engineering after high school.
“It just taught me more about mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering. I just feel more pushed toward that direction than I already was,” he said.
Karen Calaro, a 2013 Waipahu graduate who helped mentor students during the summer program, said the students are fortunate to have gained college-level engineering experience while still in high school.
Calaro recently graduated from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a degree in mechanical engineering and will be working as a nuclear engineer at Pearl Harbor.
“It’s cool that they got to experience the muscle car program because skills like using the Arduino (microcontroller) and the 3D modeling software and the schematics software, I had to teach all of that to myself as a college student because I didn’t really get that in high school,” she said.
Erwin Legaspi, director of GEAR UP Waipahu, said his organization supports opportunities for Waipahu students to explore college and career pathways.
“This in a way is a microcosm of what happens in college and in the real world so I feel apart from just providing that STEM and engineering background for students, I feel that they got a good taste of what kinds of demands that real students and workers in the tech and STEM fields and engineering fields would face when they have to make sure they reach a deadline, make sure they stay within a certain budget,” Legaspi said.
“I’m really happy and really impressed that the students and the mentors got to perform to that level,” he said.