When the fifth grade class of Harvard Elementary School visited the Rice campus, the students were already well-exposed to science and engineering disciplines; Harvard is a STEM magnet school in the Houston Independent School District. The visit, hosted by Marcia K. O’Malley, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Mechanical Engineering, gave students the chance to tour labs, dine in one of Rice’s residential college commons, talk to university students and see how their STEM education could work in the real world.
“I grew up in rural Texas,” said Craig McDonald, a fifth-year graduate student who helped host the students. “We didn’t have anything like this. These are all very bright, very curious kids. They asked lots of great questions.”
McDonald, along with fellow graduate student Chad Rose, spent time with the students as they toured O’Malley’s Mechatronics and Haptic Interfaces Lab. McDonald said the students were excited to see how the robotic arm, a research project that is designed to provide muscle sensory feedback for patients who need prosthetic limbs, works.
“I asked them, how do you think we can check to be sure a patient is using the device to work through a therapy program, instead of maybe not putting in a lot of effort,” McDonald said. “And they suggested we could look at brain activity, which is exactly right. So, this was a great opportunity for them to see how engineering can really help people.”
O’Malley, whose children attend Harvard, has hosted these lab tours for the last several years.
“This year, the tour coincided with the College Awareness Week at the school,” she said. “This is the culmination. The students get really excited about engineering and problem solving, and this is an opportunity for them to see the diversity of problems that engineers can address.”
In addition to touring O’Malley’s lab, Harvard students visited the Energy Systems Lab, the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, the Kavraki Lab and the Mechadynamics Lab. Laura Schaefer, the Burton J. and Ann McMurtry Chair in Engineering and mechanical engineering department chair, and Andrew Schaefer, the Noah Harding Chair and Professor, who are magisters of Weiss College, hosted the students for lunch in the college commons.
Rose said that he thought seeing engineering in action was helpful for the students, but he also wanted them to know that research and development are ongoing.
“I love how quickly they were able to make connections to what we’re showing them and how it can be applied,” he said. “And when I told them I’ve been working on my research since I got here six years ago, I could see what they were thinking, how six years is a long time. Then one of them said, ‘So, what you’re working on now, I might work on someday.’ And that’s what we want them to be thinking about, what they can do in the future.”