Bringing Fun Into Engineering

Wei-Chih Wang’s Story

Professor Wei-Chih Wang inspires high school students to flourish by discovering engineering and design solutions for themselves.

I want students to stay free, to be creative.

Wei-Chih Wang, Research Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering

Fun. Spontaneous. Collaborative. Not words you’d likely associate with summer school, let alone engineering class. But that’s the type of classroom Wei-Chih Wang, UW Research Associate Professor of Engineering, creates for high school students in the Introduction to Engineering Design & Process in the Summer Youth Programs offered by UW Continuum College.

For two weeks in July, students in grades 9th through 12th spend their days learning about engineering design, but in a way that’s more akin to play than study. “I want students to stay free, to be creative,” Wang said. “I want them to explore their potential — to take something they’ve always had inside them but never got a chance to show.”

HANDS-ON DESIGN

So instead of solving problems on paper and taking tests, students use their imaginations and their hands. They bounce ideas off each other and work together to build things, like robots out of Legos and moving limbs from alloy. Sometimes Wang even leaves spare parts around the classroom — like a heavy flywheel that might come in handy during an engineering-inspired game of tug-and-war — to encourage students to look around and improvise.

“For me, design means you give them the rough idea, then give them a bunch of tools, and let them figure out how to put everything together. That’s what I call design,” Wang explained. “That’s the fun part of it.”

Yet for some students, all this fun can add up to serious results.

From Summer Project to University-Level Assistant

Jonathan Leang, now a computer engineering and bioengineering major at UW, took Wang’s class the summer before his junior year in high school. “It’s not just what you learn about in class, it’s the people you meet,” Leang said. “And meeting Dr. Wang has definitely changed my life.”

Wang, always on the lookout for students with an especially bright spark of curiosity, spotted Leang’s enthusiasm during the first project, building a robotic hand. Unsatisfied with good enough, Leang kept searching for ways to make his hand better — adding foam to create joints and taking the time to connect the wires together. “The detail he put in and the thought process seemed to me to be very mature thinking,” Wang noted.

It was like no experience I’d ever been presented with before.

Johnathan Leang, UW Student, Computer Engineering and Bioengineering

After class, while Leang was waiting for his mom to pick him up, Wang asked if he wanted to see the Micro Technology Lab, which Wang directs, and maybe work in it as an assistant.

“It was like no experience I’d ever been presented with before,” said Leang. “The class was something else already, but to be able to work in a university-level research lab. That was, frankly, mysterious and exciting to me.” Leang admitted he even did a little happy dance after he left Wang’s office. “I was thinking that don’t know what I just got into, but I think it’s pretty good.”

“So one project after another, Jonathan started doing so many projects with me I can’t keep up with him!” Wang said laughing. The two reminisce about accomplishments you’d expect from a graduate student, not a high schooler — the joystick project they published a paper on, the underwater camera project they presented at the OCEANS conference, the SPIE conference where Leang presented further developments on the joystick. “We published two papers that first year,” Wang said. (A number that’s now up to five.)

Dr. Wang’s approach to life has been an inspiration to me.

Johnathan Leang, UW Student, Computer Engineering and Bioengineering

A Future in Engineering

Leang’s experience as Wang’s student and assistant has added fuel to his desire to become an engineer. It’s also influenced the direction of his study.

“I was originally thinking about your plain old engineering job,” Leang said. “But Dr. Wang’s approach to life has been an inspiration to me. I’m thinking a lot more about being in academic research. There’s an element of freedom in it. You get to choose what you’re interested in and you get to explore your passion. And working with other people — grad students, undergrads, high schoolers — you get to see the fruition of your ideas from scratch and experience it with others.”