Community Service Program Expands

Volunteer program gets high school kids into engineering with hands-on projects

8 September 2010

How do you get high school students interested in engineering? One way is to give them hands-on activities that show them engineering can be fun and of benefit to society at the same time. That's the philosophy behind the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) in IEEE, an outreach program in which section volunteers mentor IEEE student and graduate student members as they work with high school students on engineering projects that help the community.

EPICS in IEEE began in 2008 in the IEEE Philadelphia and South Africa sections. IEEE volunteers in Philadelphia and the student branch at Drexel University, also in Philadelphia, in consultation with the nonprofit Philadelphia Clean Air Council, teamed up with local high school students to help develop a sensor network to monitor the city"s air quality. At the University of Cape Town, South Africa, student branch members worked with high school students to build a wind-power turbine for a village.

compserv01 [Left] IEEE student members and the students from South Africa’s Thandokhulu and Westerford secondary schools. [Right] North Penn High School students from the Philadelphia Section EPICS program. Photos: Michael Boyer (left); Renee Dorsey (right)


The projects were so successful that this year the IEEE New Initiatives Committee (NIC) allocated US $450 000 over three years to expand the program. IEEE Educational Activities, the organizational unit that oversees the program, has approached more than 10 sections to start their own EPICS projects.

EPICS in IEEE wouldn't have happened at all had it not been for a former IEEE president who inspired two IEEE volunteers to follow in her footsteps. In 1995, Leah Jamieson, who became the 2007 IEEE president, launched EPICS at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., where she is now dean of engineering. The program comprises two outreach efforts: EPICS-University and EPICS-High. EPICS-University involves teams of undergraduate engineering students working with a local nonprofit community organization to develop technologies to solve an engineering challenge, such as building an irrigation system for a community garden. EPICS-High has high school students joining the university-based team and providing some of the design and implementation work.

In 2008, EPICS sparked the interest of IEEE Senior Members Kapil Dandekar and Saurabh Sinha. Dandekar is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Drexel and chairs the IEEE Educational Activities Pre-university Education Coordinating Committee. Sinha, a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, is chair of the South Africa Section.

comserv02 [Top] A student from the Philadelphia Section EPICS program installing a sensor. [Bottom] Students in the South Africa Section working on the wind-power turbine. Photos: Nana-Ampofo Ampofo-Anti

"With IEEE's mission of advancing technology for humanity, it made sense to extend the Purdue program to IEEE," Sinha says. He and Dandekar proposed the idea to the NIC, which provided $25 000 for the programs.

Dandekar, other faculty, and the IEEE student branch at Drexel decided on the project for the Philadelphia Clean Air Council, which is focused on improving the city's air and water quality. The project was to design and install a low-cost sensor network to develop a preliminary screening system that checks whether air quality in Philadelphia neighborhoods meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

The Drexel students worked with high school students from the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy and North Penn High School. The high school students learned about the principles of engineering design, conducted experiments to develop sensor deployment strategies, and built sensor networks for deployment around their schools. A six-node sensor network was deployed in several Philadelphia neighborhoods, and a Google Earth interface was developed to display the results. If readings from the network indicate that standards have been breached, further testing with more expensive equipment may be undertaken by local authorities. Throughout the project, Dandekar and other section volunteers guided the student members and provided technical input.

In South Africa, Sinha worked with the University of Cape Town student branch members on ideas for an alternative energy project. To understand the challenges, the team reviewed thesis proposals by the school's engineering students. They settled on Student Member Justin Alvey's project to build a wind turbine out of scrap material to generate power for a local village.

The group worked with students from Thandokhulu and Westerford secondary schools. After teaching the youngsters the basics of wind power, the student members helped the high school students design and build the 1-meter-long blades for the turbine. Alvey developed the generator on his own as part of his thesis project. Along the way, student branch counselor Azeem Khan and Graduate Student Member Nana-Ampofo Ampofo-Anti were on hand to give the student members design tips and technical guidance. In three months, a prototype was built that could deliver some 50 watts. This year, the student branch hopes to work with two other schools to install the turbine.

Sinha says he hopes the experience has inspired the high school students to consider engineering. "Some have already selected subjects to study that will help them qualify for an engineering program," he says. And the IEEE student branch members learned a thing or two as well, according to Dandekar. "The mentors encouraged student members to think of the process as running a small business, with the high school students as employees who needed to be guided," he says.

If your section or student branch is interested in EPICS in IEEE, visit the EPICS site.

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