UMass Lowell engineering a future for inner-city kids

08/01/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By SUSAN McMAHON Sun Staff

LOWELL Twelve-year-old Jesuardo Suero grabs onto a blue piece of paper, folding on one side, folding on the other, trying to turn a flat sheet into an elegant crane.

The scene belongs in an arts and crafts session at a summer camp.

But rather than occupying a space in a log cabin surrounded by trees, Suero is working on origami in the middle of a classroom at UMass Lowell, surrounded by monitors and keyboards.

Welcome to summer camp, UMass Lowell style.

'What we've struck here is the right balance between play and quote, unquote work,' said Bruce Seiger, an instructor at the camp, sponsored by the university's College of Engineering.

Host to several engineering design camps each year, the university added on a new section for this session, called the PTC Design Academy. The program serves, free of charge, 15 minority middle school students, including Suero, who were taken from a summer program for Limited English Proficient children. The students about half are female come from many populations in engineering characterized as 'underserved,' mainly Southeast Asian and Hispanic.

Basically, the instructors want to get one or two or even three of these students to continue with what they learned over the summer, perhaps helping to diversify the field.

'If I can get just one of these kids to go on in engineering, my summer will have been made,' Seiger said.

Seiger has the deep, soothing voice of a teacher, combined with the passion for kids and computers that has made the camp more than just a learning experience. For the kids who have come here, spent some of their summer days inside classrooms and laboratories, it is more than just work. It's fun.

When they see their designs come to fruition, when they watch a keychain they designed on a computer screen be manufactured before their eyes, that's what has made the time spent indoors all worth it.

For Suero, it exceeded his expectations.

Did he have any interest in engineering before he showed up at the camp?

'No, I thought it would be boring. I thought it was a real school,' he said. 'But then it was fun.'

The camp is a product of a collaboration between UMass Lowell's College of Engineering and PTC, the Needham-based product development company. PTC provided the instructors as well as the Pro/DESKTOP 3D design software, which the company produces. The design software allows students to manipulate and create objects. Manufacturing software then allows them to make it come to life.

At the end of the camp, students will be able to take the design software home with them.

'The kids have just really, really learned an awful lot about it,' Seiger said.

But the design camp isn't just about computers and manufacturing. Students also learn the basics, and one of the tenets of design is knowing how to work with your hands.

Hence, the origami.

Other projects have included making paddleballs and Frisbees. And the students get to enjoy the traditional aspects of a summer camp, playing games outside and learning new songs.

For the students, it's an opportunity to explore a new discipline they would never get in school. For the teachers, it's a chance to turn the kids' minds towards science early.

The key, instructors said, is instilling the love of creation into the students. Seiger has already seen those sparks of ingenuity flying out of the 9-, 11- and 12-year-olds when they see, with their own eyes, the creation of a small plastic keychain that formerly only existed on a computer screen.

'It's their own, and they made it,' Seiger said with a wide grin. 'And they knew they designed it.'