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Afternoon at the ‘museum’

It’s April 9, and a seventh grader from the James P. Timilty Middle School in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood is standing on a rotating platform on the third floor of Northeastern’s Snell Engineering building holding onto a spinning bicycle wheel. “When you take physics later,” says Yoshua Rozen, E’18, “you’ll learn all about the conservation of angular momentum.”

Rozen is a first-year electrical and computer engineering student, and today is a learning experience for him too. For the final project of his engineering design class, he and his peers have been tasked with creating prototype museum exhibits to communicate complex engineering topics to younger students.

Beverly Kris Jaeger, a senior academic specialist in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, has taught several iterations of the course since joining the Northeastern faculty in 2001.

“Normally, we would say, ‘Develop a design to help a person get from her wheelchair to her car,’ or ‘make the subway system greener,’” she explains. “In past years, we’ve had projects for which the students are just given a problem statement. More recently, we’ve been advancing the service element along with the technical rigor. Here they’re given a condition and are encouraged to think across systems and populations.”

A radio-controlled, solar-powered car, sporting a regenerative motor on the front left wheel, was on display as first-year engineering students presented their team-based final projects. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

A radio-controlled, solar-powered car, sporting a regenerative motor on the front left wheel, was on display as first-year engineering students presented their team-based final projects. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The students had to pick two relatively advanced technologies or engineering principles that work together in real-world applications and research them deeply to develop their own technical expertise. Then they were required to engineer a multi-part interactive exhibit to effectively convey those concepts to the middle school students, who were visiting as part of the Center for STEM Education’s field trip series.

“I definitely learned a lot about the engineering process from the class and the project,” says Michaela Toland, a first-year chemical engineering major. “I think I’ll be using what we learned in this class for a very long time.”

Toland’s team focused on alternative energies. The students’ exhibit included a video on greenhouse gases, a group-designed model of a solar car that generates its own electricity, and a game for students to learn about nuclear, wind, and solar energy.

Another team explored the similarities and differences between analog and digital music, while yet another designed a mobile eye-tracking device that helps people navigate their wheelchairs.

All exhibits were designed to demonstrate the underlying principles of engineering, engage the middle school audience, and possess interactive and educational components. Jaeger guided the students in engineering the ergonomics, timing, flow, and self-testing elements of each exhibit to consider the experience from the target users’ perspective.

Most of the teams were interdisciplinary, with students from various majors working together to tackle their project from different angles. In essence, the course gave the undergraduates a glimpse of what it’s really like to be an engineer. “We were all really different, but all of our ideas came together,” says Dion Duran, a first-year civil and environmental engineering major. “It was hard to get everything to work at first, but once we got the ball rolling, we worked really well together and we were extremely efficient.”

First-year engineering students in an engineering design course presented their team-based final projects, which included creating prototype museum exhibits to communicate complex engineering topics to younger students. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

First-year engineering students in an engineering design course presented their team-based final projects, which included creating prototype museum exhibits to communicate complex engineering topics to younger students. Photo by Brooks Canaday.