by Meredith Dault
13th April 2011
Erin Smith and Eric Hardjo share a laugh as they describe the experience of teaching high school kids how to make mini wind turbines using mostly found materials. “You basically give them a stake and a mini generator, and then it’s up to them to figure out how to attach it all,” says Smith, explaining that after they’re built, the students hook the turbines up to volt meters to measure how much energy they’re generating. The exercise is always a hit. “We can’t believe it’s worked out as well as it has,” says Smith with a smile (though she admits they’ve had a few minor incidents of students glueing their fingers together with Superglue).
Smith, who is in the final year of her PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and Hardjo(supervisor Professor Kunal Karan), who is about to wrap up his Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering, spend about six weeks every year teaching courses for bright high school and junior high school students. The Enrichment Services Unit (link: http://esu.queensu.ca/about/index.php) at Queen’s runs a number of programs that provide opportunities for promising students to spend time taking courses on campus. The three-day SEEDS program gives students in grades 7 and 8 a chance to take mini-courses in everything from anatomy and computing, to songwriting and journalism. The more intensive EMC program runs for an entire week, giving gifted high school students hands-on experience in things like cancer research, astronomy, sports psychology, and marketing.
Smith and Hardjo’s popular course, called ‘Power Up’, is built around exploring alternative energy and green engineering. After teaching a three-day session in February, they’re now gearing up to teach five back-to-back courses through May and June. “I love teaching and I hope to do it for a career,” says Smith, who anticipates a career in the academy. “It’s really good experience to have to develop a curriculum from scratch and teach it.” Hardjo, who has worked as a teaching assistant in the chemical engineering department, agrees. “Teaching people what you know...it’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.”
But they add that teaching kids is far more demanding than lecturing to university students. “Making the lecture material is the toughest,” says Hardjo, “especially making it simple enough, and breaking down the (scientific) equations into bite sized bits of information.” “They have a very short attention span,” adds Smith. “While a university student is used to sitting for an hour in a lecture, with high school kids it’s about 20 minutes, max.” That means they end up working hard to devise varied activities that will keep the students engaged. “We have a lot of hands on activities,” she adds. This year, for example, they’ll be taking the students to a chemistry lab where they will learn how to make dye solar cells. “It mimics photosynthesis,” Smith explains, “you can get a chemical dye from blackberries, and actually generate electricity which can be measured.” This year, the duo are also planning to incorporate a field trip to Wolfe Island to get up close to the wind turbines there.
Smith first came to the program after being hired by the Queen’s Centre for Energy and Power Electronics Research (ePOWER) to develop and manage their youth outreach program in September 2009. She started looking into what sort of programs were already available for youth on-campus and found a perfect fit in the enrichment services unit. Hardjo, who is youth outreach manager for the Queen's-RMC Fuel Cell Research Centre, where he conducts his own research on the mathematical modeling of solid oxide fuel cells, came on a year later after his supervisor encouraged him to consider the position. That’s when they began to integrate his knowledge into their SEEDS and EMC curriculums.
Smith, whose academic work is focused in biomedical engineering (she works with surgeons in developing technology for computer-assisted surgery) admits that this teaching takes her slightly outside of her current area of expertise, and that she sometimes gets Hardjo to help her brush up on her chemistry. “It’s great, because you’re not only reinforcing the core knowledge yourself (so you can teach it), but you also teach each other.” “I take over most of the chemical stuff dealing with energy,” adds Hardjo, “and Erin does the electrical and mechanical stuff.”
Though Smith and Hardjo, who have become good friends since taking on this project together, admit that while running the courses can be challenging and time consuming, they both agree that it’s worth it. “It’s all about managing your time,” says Smith. “For six weeks in May and June, we are going to be really busy.” “We’ll just have a vacation after that,” adds Hardjo encouragingly. “We’ll relax in July.”