A lot of research and innovation goes into each and every Thinkery summer camp. This year, Thinkery worked with students from The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering to redesign an activity for HydroExplorers, a Thinkery summer camp that explores the wild, wonderful world of water.
Amy, Andrea, Carla and Sam—seniors from UT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering working on their undergraduate Mechanical Engineering Senior Design Project—redesigned a prototype hydroelectric dam. Working collaboratively, the team spent five months modeling the very dam our 3rd-5th grade campers will design and construct throughout the weeklong HydroExplorers camp. Focusing on providing a fun, kid-friendly experience for campers, the team worked to improve the dam’s durability and efficiency.
We recently interviewed the team about their experience. See what sparked their initial interest in engineering, as well as the design challenges they faced and the advice they have for future engineers.
What sparked your interest in mechanical engineering?
Amy: My interest in mechanical engineering was sparked by a few different sources. Both of my parents encouraged me from a young age to be curious about the world around me. I was a competitive swimmer for several years and became very interested in biomechanics and their relation to swimming efficiency and speed. I liked figuring out how things worked physically. I also particularly enjoyed physics and calculus in high school and thought that being able to design, create or work on something that could help people was the best application of science and math. You can do a lot with a mechanical engineering degree since the field is so broad, which is awesome.
Carla: I have always been curious about how things work, especially in my daily life. After taking physics in high school, I really enjoyed learning the answers to my many questions, and I loved doing the experiments. I knew I wanted to do something that improves lives while also incorporating math and physics, so I was drawn to mechanical engineering. Mechanical engineers use their wide spectrum of knowledge to design and create whatever they want.
What challenges did you face when working on your Senior Design Project?
Amy: For a couple of months, we couldn’t get the system to work. We were trying different things, and we couldn’t light the LED. So we went back to the theory and tried to troubleshoot why the LED was not lighting and what we could change to raise the voltage that we were producing so that we could light the LED. We had a breakthrough when we figured out that the magnets’ distance from the coils of wire was very important, and we came up with several solutions that helped decrease the distance between the coils and the magnets. The LED finally lit up, and we were very excited.
Andrea: One of the biggest challenges for me was keeping the project organized and on schedule. As the team leader, I needed to make sure that meetings happened and goals that were set were achieved. With four different schedules and many extracurricular activities going on, it was often a challenge to keep on track. Working with a team that was willing to pull its own weight really made this project go more smoothly than expected. When I set a goal, or we set one together, we all worked hard to meet that goal.
How do you deal with failure, or feeling like a failure?
Carla: When things fail, I try something different or go back to the basic calculations and my initial thoughts to determine where I could have gone wrong. If this does not work, sometimes trying again the next day with a fresh mind helps inspire me to come up with brand new ideas. I don’t consider failure as a negative thing. Failures are learning experiences, and they are crucial to highlighting areas that need to be improved.
Sam: I use failure as motivation. When I am faced with a challenge, or I fail at something the first time, it gets under my skin and makes me want to try even harder and smarter at my next attempt. Problem solving becomes like a game, and you can’t always win, but that definitely doesn’t mean you should stop playing!
What do you hope Thinkery campers will get out of their HydroExplorers camp experience?
Andrea: I hope that the campers will gain an understanding of something that they never considered before. Most people (not just children) do not question things like where electricity comes from or how their many electronics are powered. I hope that gaining an understanding of something new will give them a desire to understand many other things and help them grow in curiosity about the world. The only way something can get better is if somebody questions it and sees a way to improve it.
Sam: As you grow up, you begin to develop a better and better understanding for how things go together and work. The earlier you begin piecing things together, the more intuitive and insightful you become. I hope this stimulates students’ interest in science and experimentation, and I also hope it shows how fun science can be when you really explore it.
What advice do you have for future engineers?
Amy: Be curious! Engineers are always looking for the answers to the questions “why?” and “how can we make it work?”
Andrea: Keep your eye on the end goal. Many engineers will have the opportunity to make a person’s life better, remember that during any difficult times and challenges.
Carla: Take risks and don’t be afraid to push yourself.
Sam: Be persistent—answers don’t usually come easy or quick.