What is this “work” you speak of?
Tomorrow millions of kids will accompany parents to workplaces across the country to get a flavor for this mysterious thing called “work” that so many grown-ups leave the house to go and do every morning.
Helping kids make sense of this question when it comes to engineering, of course, is a foundational goal of ours at Start Engineering. Our good friends at Playground Parkbench have just posted a terrific feature on how our books impart, even to the youngest learners, a sense of what engineering can be in their lives. It’s a nice read.
And the children shall lead
Some kids, though, figure out work questions on their own. The six kids featured below have launched themselves full-bore into real-life engineering work at an age when their peers are still grappling with pre-algebra or laboring through the periodic table.
By her Pontiac you shall know her
At age 12, Kathryn DiMaria (b. 2001 and shown above) caught sight of a Pontiac Fiero at a local car show and knew immediately she had to have one. Her path to Fiero driving, however, would consist not of saving up money to buy one. Instead, she decided to rebuild one, from the ground up.
With four years to go before legal driving age, DiMaria set to work, with help from her father and bankrolled by babysitting money. A 42-page thread on a Fiero owners’ message board chronicles the ups and downs of her work. As of April 16, she’s nearing completion.
Along the way, DiMaria has acquired a degree of fame as “the girl who played with Fieros.” She finds the attention a bit strange, noting, “It doesn’t matter that I’m a girl. I am able to do this just as well as any other person.”
By age 13, Kelvin Doe (b. 1996) had taught himself enough engineering to build his own radio station in his hometown near Freetown, Sierra Leone. Built out of scrap metal and scavenged pieces of electronics equipment, his radio station gave an outlet to his on-air persona, DJ Focus, and won him international media attention. He became the youngest invitee to MIT’s “Visiting Practitioners Program,” gave a TEDx Teen talk, and lectured to undergraduate engineering students at Harvard.
Now 19, Doe works to promote engineering and educational opportunity in Sierra Leone and travels around the world looking for partners and resources to bring back to his home country.
Fast, affordable HIV testing
One of the keys to effective treatment for people with HIV is reliable detection close to the date of infection. In the developing world, testing can be hard to execute because of the expense and need for access to a lab with processing capabilities.
Working with a team of collaborators at Simon Fraser University, Nicole Ticea (b. 1999) led the development of a simple, inexpensive HIV test that can deliver results in the field within hours. This breakthrough piece of biotechnology has become the cornerstone of a company Ticea has started and also earned her a finalist’s place in the 2015 Intel Science and Engineering Fair. While awaiting FDA approval, Ticea stays busy honing the technology and looking for partners to work with on distribution and deployment.
An easier way to get snacks
A website builder at age five and tech company phenom at 12, Rohan Agrawal (b. 2000) just can’t help himself: he keeps building robots. On his first day as an intern at OLogic, a Silicon Valley robotics company, he built a Roomba-like robot to roam the company’s hallways and deliver snacks. By the end of his summer there, Rohan had demonstrated abilities that OLogic CEO Ted Larson compared favorably to those of the PhD engineers on his payroll.
Founder of his own consulting firm, Aleopile, Agrawal continues to innovate in the field of self-navigating robots and wonders if it will even be worth his while to go to college.
All in the family
Living testaments to the DIY ethos of engineering, Camille (b. 2002) and Genevieve (b. 2004) Beatty are tweens who caught the robotics bug and ended up starting a family company. Beatty Robotics grew out of the 10-year-old Camille’s penchant for taking things apart around the house.
Her dad, Robert, pushed her. “Now that you know how to take something apart, do you want to try building something?”
Her quick yes started father and daughters on a self-taught path to full-blown robot manufacture. Four years later, Beatty Robotics builds robots for museums and science centers around the country. The girls have been featured in numerous media profiles and given multiple talks about their adventures in robotics.
“The girls do most of the work,” writes Robert. “Hands-on. That’s what keeps them engaged and happy. Soldering. Machining. Assembly. Electronic wiring. It’s great to see their minds and their hands hard at work building cool high-tech stuff.”
From Mongolia to MIT
Mongolia lacks much of the physical infrastructure common in the developed world, befitting a culture still extensively nomadic. But they do have robust wireless data transmission capacities, of which Battushig Myanganbayar (b. 1997) has made prodigious use.
At age 15, he was one of 340 students in a class of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, offered by MIT. Along the way, he made a series of Mongolian-language instructional videos to help his native classmates navigate the challenges of English-only online materials.
Even before acing the sophomore-level course, Myanganbayar had put advanced engineering smarts to use building the Garage Siren. He first built the siren to alert his 10-year-old sister and her friends to approaching cars during their play in and around the concealed driveways near his family’s apartment building. Further design enhancements made the siren into a device with actual market appeal, and it went into use around his hometown in a wireless version.
“In electrical engineering,” Myanganbayar says, “there are no limits. It’s like playing with toys.”
Now a student at MIT, Myanganbayar has also consulted extensively with MIT MOOC program leaders on how to improve the online learning experience for current and future enrollees.
What about the rest of us?
Besides having extraordinary, inborn gifts, all these kids also enjoyed informed, interested guidance and encouragement from adults in their lives who knew something of engineering to start with. This kind of guidance, though, can be a rare commodity.
For kids (and adults) who do not have inside information on what engineering is all about, our books can fill the breach. If you know a kid who might have “the knack” for engineering but aren’t sure how to confirm the diagnosis, share one of our books with her or him and see how it goes.
And if you know of other precociously accomplished young engineers, do share their stories in the comments. Please feel free to share these stories with any interested friends or colleagues.
Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at email@example.com.
You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.
Just published! A bilingual version of Dream, Invent, Create, for making engineering come alive in Spanish and English at the same time.
Our new Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.
For any outreach or education program, all of our popular K-12 engineering books, What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide, can help deliver an accessible, engaging picture of engineering to all kinds of K-12 audiences.
Photos: Kathryn DiMaria, Pennock's Fiero Forum; Kelvin Doe, African Leadership Forum; Camille and Genevieve Beatty, Beatty Robotics; Nicole Ticea, Tribeca Innovation Awards; Rohan Agrawal, Aleopile; Battushig Myanganbayar, MIT.