I first had the spark to become a mechanical engineer when my sixth-grade science teacher encouraged me to enter a toothpick bridge contest. It looked pretty fun and I wanted to win, so I decided to join. Back then I didn’t have much knowledge about how to optimize a structure to withstand the highest possible load, mathematically analyze stresses and strains, or apply any sort of computational mechanics. All I knew was that triangles were the strongest shapes and that it was usually a safe bet to build in the shape of a truss. Despite my lack of knowledge, I embarked on the project and spent countless hours meticulously building my toothpick bridge. I learned along the way what brand of toothpicks were the strongest, that clipping the ends allowed for the strongest joints and even developed complex gluing techniques.
When the day came to test our bridges at the Oklahoma City Science Museum, I excitedly ran up to the stage when my name was called. I waited in nervous anticipation after placing my bridge on the test stand and watched the attendant fasten the hydraulic puller to the bottom of my bridge. With safety glasses on, the machine was activated and...SNAP! I looked over at the dial readout and much to my disbelief, my bridge had broken with only five pounds of weight. With a heavy heart and a sense of disappointment, I headed home that night realizing that I’d need much more education if I wanted to build something that could actually make a difference in the field of science.
The following year, I joined the science club and loved learning about STEM concepts. Despite exploring other interests in high school such as orchestra, photography and student government, I always knew that engineering was my first passion.
Because of the toothpick bridge experience, when I first entered Rice as a mechanical engineer, I’d originally thought it meant building things. When I started at Rice, mechanical engineering to me was basically figuring out how to build strong structures.
Then I took Control Systems, and Thermal Design, and Partial Differential Equations, where I realized that mechanical engineering was so much more than just building things that move. It’s an incredibly broad field where you learn concepts from all other majors.
As a mechanical engineer, I’ve learned how to systematically approach a problem, then design and build the optimal solution for it. Being able to direct our own projects has taught me an incredible amount about managing product timelines as well as part lead times. As mechanical engineers, the construction and machining comes intuitively, but we’ve also been able to learn about circuits and motor control schemes. My senior design team has used this knowledge to code quickly, enabling us to control powerful motors along predefined position functions.
Looking back on my time at Rice, I’ve been able to learn about a wide variety of topics as a mechanical engineering student. I’ve been able to look at something and confidently say, “Hey, I bet I could design and build that!” Of course, I’m always in the process of learning, but I’d say I’m one step closer to building the next best bridge.