A Day of “Curiosity and Excitement” for 270 Middle School Students

Superintendent Dr. Helen Morgan of the Hawthorne School District (L) greeted the students as they exited the six yellow school buses. Associate Superintendent Dr. Brian Markarian (far L) had been instrumental in arranging the field trip and was on hand to see it as well. Busy at every moment, Bud Carson Principal Mark Silva (R) and the two dozen teachers who accompanied him had a full day of wrangling the 270 students roaming across the USC campus.

From Morse Code to nanotechnology, the past and future of electrical engineering were on display this month at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering STEM Spotlight on the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering for 270 students from Bud Carson Middle School in Hawthorne. After hearing an overview of the field, the students visited six faculty labs and participated in six hands-on workshops. The trip ended with a panel discussion by renowned engineers working in diverse fields, who answered probing questions from the middle schoolers after talking about their own paths to studying engineering at USC Viterbi and on to their careers at leading corporations and research centers as well as founding a start-up. Hawthorne Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Brian Markarian summed up the day’s impact: “I know that the expression ‘life-changing" gets thrown out a lot, but I cannot think of a better way to describe it. It was so clear that the interactions with students, faculty, and alumni were sparking curiosity and excitement among our students, and I am positive that the event is one that they will never forget.”

The students started with an overview of electrical engineering provided by Ming Hsieh Chairperson Sandeep Gupta (R), Professor Richard Leahy (L), and Professor Armand Tanguay.

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Over 30 USC Viterbi students served as STEM ambassadors to the twenty groups, using signs held high to find their groups in the crowd of 270 students and lead them to a new activity every 30 minutes. Thankful to all these student volunteers for whisking their student groups from labs to interactive demos to the culminating panel discussion.

The first thing the students learned is that electrical engineering is a far broader field than many people realize. In the introduction to the day’s many activities, Chair of the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering Systems, Professor Sandeep Gupta (R in the photo), gave an overview of signal processing and how engineers experiment with breakthroughs to speed up computer processing. Prof. Richard Leahy (L in the photo) discussed his research in creating images of the brain and how medicine has changed because of advances in biomedical imaging. The STEM students were amazed to hear how Prof. Armand Tanguay specializes in a form of electrical engineering called neural-electronics to restore sight to blind people by inserting a camera the size of a grain of salt into their eye.

After this overview, the students branched out in twenty separate groups to visit six faculty labs to see cutting-edge research on nanotechnology and nanophotonics, observe demonstrations or interact with wireless data transport, optical fiber communications, algorithmic imaging, and autonomous networks. Overall, twelve Ming Hsieh professors and at least 35 graduate students gave up a day of research to reach out to the students in 6th – 8th grades, sharing the broader impacts of their research and hoping that their enthusiasm about this important field of engineering would inspire the Hawthorne students to stick with their STEM studies.

USC students volunteered in record numbers to lead the students to the labs and also to prepare and deliver engaging ways to learn about electrical engineering. See left photo; right top: PhD. student Debarghya Sarkar shows students Prof. Kapadia's Lab; below, Masters students Vishweshwer Shastri (L) and Aakash Dhongade (R) worked hard to help the event run smoothly.

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Students focused on creating circuits and also worked in groups to understand electric conduction, learning that human bodies also conduct a charge.

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Several student organizations fulfilled their mission of leadership and service by providing hands-on workshops: here, a Theta Tau student helps students building a circuit to signal a Morse Code message in an activity created by RoboGals.

Additional interactive stations included two activities created by Makers@USC (below, Yutong Gu demonstrates Makey-Makeys). Below right, Prof. Bhaskar Krishnamachari is on hand with Ph.D. student Gowri Ramachandran checking out the wireless Data Transport Relay; bottom left is Ph.D. student Haimeng Zhang (center, white lab coat) in Prof. Han Wang's nano lab, and bottom right are Prof. Krishnamachari's students demonstrating a robot swarm. The USC Solar Car Team members explained to students motor they built to generate power. Altogether, the USC Viterbi students volunteered ~ 200 hours of time, caring enough about engineering to share their passion with slightly younger students.
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Librarians Sheree Fu (L, below) and Dr. Shalini Ramachandran (R) led workshops on how to be critical consumers of science information on the Internet. With 93% of teens aged 12 – 17 seeking information online, it is imperative for this generation to be able to distinguish reliable sources of science information from fake news. Their activity, "Believe It or Not,"can be found here.

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The day ended with a very popular panel discussion from USC Viterbi alumni who are now leaders in the businesses in which they work, from Raytheon to Hyperloop One to NASA as well as the start up Audeze. The panel was organized by USC Viterbi Advancement Director Jessie Stone. After each alumnus shared about her or his studies and career path, the panel took questions from the bold and excited audience. “Are you rich?” “Do you play video games?” “Did you ever give up in school because a class was too hard?” This is also the goal of a STEM Spotlight: to give adolescents the chance to ask freely such questions, airing their hopes and fears and opening to learning from the life experience of accomplished adults. 

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Alumni Panelists: Jessie Stone (USC Advancement),Sankar Thiagasamudram, Dr. Firouz Naderi, Dr. John Ermer, Dr. Michelle Hauer, Dr. Anita Sengupta (L-R)

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The panel was the culmination of a busy day learning about electrical engineering.

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Dr. Timothy Pinkston (R), USC Viterbi Professor and Director of the Computer Engineering Division of the Electrical Engineering-Systems Department, and USC Viterbi Vice-Dean of Faculty, moderated the panel and fielded enthusiastic questions from the audience.

At the end of the day, everyone learned a lot about electrical engineering. One student wrote in a survey, "I learned that we use advanced technology to create new things that solve big problems." Another noted: "I learned that there will be people there to help and guide you to success in engineering." And a typical response was: "The most interesting was that all people on the panel had a challenge and they didn't give up and kept going."

When this generation of middle students matriculates to college in just a few years, today's research innovations in biomedicine, computer communications, nanophotonics and much more will be commonplace, and it will be K-12 STEM students like these from Bud Carson Middle School who take us to the next breakthroughs in electrical engineering.

Most photos by Joseph Nakhost (some by USC Viterbi staff).

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Published on March 19th, 2018

Last updated on March 24th, 2022