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Finding a Passion for Engineering Outside of the Textbook

Posted Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 11:39 AM

"Victoria Wang discovered what it means to think like an engineer during an engineering summer program."

Finding a Passion for Engineering Outside of the Textbook

PostedThursday, November 6, 2014 at 12:02 PM

Victoria Wang
Victoria Wang
Finding a Passion for Engineering Outside of the Textbook

Author: Victoria Wang

“I’m not an engineer and I don’t think I can ever be one,” said the girl sitting next to me. It was the first day of COSMOS, a Californian State Funded STEM summer program, and we had both drifted towards the same station. I asked why she believed this, and she looked at the floor, saying, “I’ve never had the opportunity. At my school, it’s always the boys who are involved.” I’d felt the same thing myself, but just being at COSMOS, as part of the Biodiesel from Renewable Sources Cluster, I was hoping to change this perception that engineers are supposed to be male, while also pursuing my passions for green energy, environmental science and inventing.

When we had a chance to get into groups for projects, I ended up choosing mechanical engineering (on a team of two males and two females), because the task of designing and constructing a rancimat completely from scrap metal intrigued me. (A rancimat is a device that measures the oxidative stability of biodiesel, which is crucial as we transition from heavy reliance on petroleum to sustainable fuel sources.) The rancimat mimics a car’s engine, and consists of a cost efficient insulator, a reliable air and water pump mechanism, and an intelligent microcontroller that regulates temperature, pressure, and airflow. Building one was no small feat for four high school students, given that none of us had ever even heard of a rancimat. At the beginning of the design process, we were all frustrated and confused, especially since we were given complete freedom to create our own product, and no textbook answer.

I often found myself asking our mentor, “Is this right? How can I do this?”

He always replied, “Is it right? I don’t know, you must see for yourself. Remember, you’re not trying to seek perfection.”

This was valuable advice, which went against what I’ve learned in school, where I am expected to memorize concepts, theories, and equations verbatim, but I am not generally expected to create something new or to fail in order to grow. I took it to heart, and when other members of the team were ready to give up and didn’t want to dedicate time and energy to our project, I worked hard to keep them inspired and on task.

I spent most of my time constructing the actual body of the Rancimat, while other members focused on the coding and programming components. I also worked to educate the other members of the team about my research and findings in order to make sure we were all on the same page. It certainly wasn’t easy, but in the end, we had a functional Rancimat, and won the best project of our cluster, which included a $400 prize.

The opportunity to attend this summer program gave me something I would not have received in school. I was given the opportunity to think like an engineer, and I realized that it is not about following a certain prescribed procedure; I made my own procedures. I was given time, opportunity, and resources to freely engineer, and I could see that my gender was not an obstacle.

What I’ve primarily learned from my engineering projects, building the Ramicat in particular, is that I can still apply what I already know, despite the frustrations of being faced with things I don’t know. My mentor’s advice and guidance were freeing to me, and I could not be more thankful. Through trial and error, I learned tremendous amounts; my interest in engineering flourished, and now I am sure I will pursue this path in college. Will it be right?  I don’t know. I will find out for myself. I’m not trying to seek perfection.