Campus & Community

Stevens’ Seniors Participate in Elementary School Outreach

The Stevens Robotics team demonstrates NASA Lunabotics project for Heywood Avenue elementary students

As part of National Engineers Week, a group of seniors from Stevens Institute of Technology participated in Discover Engineering (DiscoverE) Day, planting seeds of inspiration in a younger generation of curious learners.

National Engineering Week (February 21 to 27), celebrated by many schools across the nation, is a time to engage the next generation of innovators. Gerald Murphy, the assistant principal from Heywood Avenue School, first invited Stevens to speak about engineering to his students back in 2017 and the institution has returned every year since. This year, mechanical engineering professors Maxine Fontaine and Mishah Uzziél Salman and Stevens seniors Ryan McAliney (electrical engineering), Robert Preston Wilmot (CPE), and Trent Slutzky (mechanical engineering) spoke with a fourth grade class via Zoom.

“I love all the enthusiasm and curiosity that these young students bring,” Fontaine said. “Their energy is quite a bit different than that of a college-level class, so it’s a refreshing change of pace.”

“It’s so gratifying to see youngsters so genuinely excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at such a young age,” Salman added. “We were very impressed by the thoughtful questions they asked about engineering and the content of the presentations.”

Three principles emphasized at Heywood Avenue School are focus, discipline and respect, which are part of the school’s motto that students recite each morning. The Stevens outreach team made a point to connect back to these principles within the session.

“This really tied things together nicely,” Salman said. “The teachers and principal were very impressed.”

In any outreach event, it’s important to start with a solid foundation. “We kicked off the event with a PollEverywhere word cloud to see what the students already knew about engineering,” Fontaine said. “Then we gave a brief overview about engineering before passing it off to Trent Slutzky and his team, who presented their work on the robotic lunar rover design project.”

The Stevens Robotics - Lunabotics team

Slutsky and his team are a part of the NASA Robotic Student Competition: Lunabotics Challenge, which trains university students in the methods of NASA systems engineering while they design, build and operate an exciting lunar excavator prototype. A sustainable presence on the moon necessitates the excavation of lunar regolith—an icy substance that can be turned into breathable air, drinking water and other life-supporting materials.

One of the biggest challenges the Lunabotics team faced is the increasing specificity of the design. As students across the country compete and submit prototypes, the challenge is subsequently updated each year in response to the quality of those robots. This year, the weight maximums of the prototype were reduced, while the digging depth requirements were increased. This meant that the team faced the additional challenge of building a light robot that can also dig deeper, in order to maximize space and efficiency.

As Slutzky told the Stute last year: “Thinking about sending things into space, we have to be practical. Every pound makes it harder to bring along, so for the project a heavy weight will deduct points.”

“The students and teachers seemed very interested and engaged,” said Fontaine. “We got some great questions from the students about the lunar rover design and space exploration in general.”

Since this outreach to Heywood Avenue school, the Lunabotics senior design team—which also consists of 2021 seniors Louis Cantor, Stephen Forte, Joseph Pelligra, and Andrew Underwood—has learned that they won the L3Harris Senior Capstone project competition.

“The competition includes competing teams from many technical universities,” Salman added.

This win is a testament to the team’s hard work, dedication and passion for their project. The team brought that same sense of contagious enthusiasm to the students at Heywood Avenue School—stimulating curiosity in the attending elementary students.

Inspiring a future generation of innovators

Outreach events like this one help to take abstract concepts of STEM and make them more approachable for diverse groups of students.

“We want to make the field more relatable to encourage young minds from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in STEM,” Fontaine said. Students and professors alike hope to raise awareness about what engineering really is: solving problems together to change the world.

Near the end of the session, Heywood Avenue School’s principal, Ms. Alcantara, joined the group. She praised the ability of these Stevens undergraduates to engage the elementary school students. She also voiced gratitude for their part in building excitement about STEM careers in this younger generation.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these 4th graders in our undergraduate classes in a few years!” Salman said.

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