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Formula SAE students inspiring fifth-graders to pursue engineering

March 28, 2014 - By Kim Delker

The University of New Mexico's Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE) team members are serving as teachers this month for a three-week engineering class, part of a national program to introduce and interest youth in engineering.

The class, being held at Monte Vista Elementary School in Albuquerque, has around 15 FSAE team members leading 48 fifth-graders in the design of a miniature race car — about 6 inches long and made of balloons, sticks, nozzles and other assorted parts.

The car must be built to certain specifications, as dictated by the fictitious toy maker. This gives fifth-grade students are early glimpse into what it is like to work as a real engineer, constructing projects to a client’s specification, said John Russell, director of UNM’s Formula SAE program and Halliburton Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

"We feel that it's part of our charter to promote engineering," Russell said. "This project takes the scientific concepts the students are learning about in class and relates them to engineering and how they can do something useful with that knowledge."

The program is part of the A World in Motion program, funded by the SAE Foundation. The goal of the national program is to bring the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math to life in K-12 classrooms. The program uses the laws of physics, motion, flight, and electronics as the basis for age-appropriate, hands-on activities that reinforce what students are learning about math and science.

For this project, the students are broken up into several design teams. UNM students help each team build and test the tiny cars and collect and analyze data to understand the effect of nozzle size on the performance of the toys.

Typically, a teacher conducts this program with an engineer's help, Russell said. But in this case, that process is reversed, with the students conducting the class with the teacher helping out as needed.

Mechanical engineering senior Julia Walker is leading the group and working with Monte Vista teacher Anne Strader. Walker said the project is a great opportunity to get the word out to youth about engineering.

"Just like in real life, we present to them a problem and it's up to them to come up with a solution," she said. "We're not telling them what to do. It's up to them to figure out what to do."

Another mechanical engineering senior, Akamee Baca Malta, said that the program helps give these budding engineers confidence in their abilities.

"It validates their own ideas," she said. "No one is telling them that something will or won’t work. They have to find that out on their own."

Walker said that it’s especially inspiring to see when these young students begin thinking like engineers.

"Sometimes you can see that certain kids have what it takes and you just hope they go into engineering," she said. "It's so exciting to see that."

Russell said the FSAE students have worked on the A World in Motion project at Monte Vista for nearly a decade. FSAE is also involved in other efforts with local schools, such as a program with eighth-graders at Truman Middle School where UNM students help Truman students design a car, working with computer-aided-design (CAD) software and computer numerical control (CNC) machines.

FSAE students began the working with the Monte Vista class March 13-14 and will lead classes from 2-3 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays through March 28. Students will test out their mini creations in the gymnasium of Monte Vista on March 28, and the students are planning at trip to UNM this spring to see the current FSAE car and where it is built.

Formula SAE at UNM started in 1997. The three-semester program begins in the spring and is an alternative path to graduation for mechanical engineering students. Students take three courses worth 10 credit hours: Racecar Design & Dynamics, Racecar Build Lab, and Racecar Test Lab. The culmination of the program is an opportunity to compete with the car they designed and built in the Formula SAE competition. This year’s contest is in Lincoln, Neb., June 18-21.