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Inspiring the next generation of engineers

Graduate students demonstrate final projects to encourage high schoolers to pursue engineering


A group of people pose for a photo.

Graduate students in Arizona State University’s Principles of Systems Engineering class present their final projects encouraging high school students to pursue engineering in higher education. Photo by Sona Srinarayana/ASU

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May 30, 2023

When high school students consider majoring and working in a field as broad as engineering, it can be difficult to narrow down what the right fit may be without firsthand knowledge. 

Junfeng Zhao, an assistant professor of engineering at The Polytechnic School, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, found a way to help.

Students in Zhao’s graduate-level Principles of Systems Engineering class turned their standard end-of-semester presentations into an engineering showcase at ASU Preparatory Academy-Polytechnic High School. The showcase gave students an inside look at what engineering projects can entail.

The class focuses on the interdisciplinary aspects of designing and developing complex systems, addressing the scale, scope and complexity that engineers need to consider during the design process. 

Zhao, who also runs the Battery Electric and Intelligent Vehicle, or BELIV, Lab, which researches the development of safe, clean and energy-efficient intelligent vehicles, split his class up into five groups, each focused on a different aspect necessary to the development of an autonomous vehicle. 

Presenting the possibility of an engineering future

The idea for the showcase came from a chance encounter at an event organized by the School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks, part of the Fulton Schools at ASU.

Irvin Goutcher, a science teacher at ASU Preparatory Academy, heard about Zhao’s work. They began discussing opportunities that Zhao could provide for Goutcher’s students.

“Students need to see what they are learning in action,” Goutcher said. “Being able to participate in events that validate what you are learning is inspiring. The earlier you can inspire a kid, the more passionate and driven they become in achieving their goals.”

Stephen Rothkopf, principal of ASU Preparatory Academy-Polytechnic High School, said the students look forward to ASU-affiliated showcase events. 

“Students gain an appreciation for the sorts of things engineers do,” Rothkopf said. “This helps students be more active when selecting learning pathways toward graduation.”

At the event, Zhao and his students demonstrated the systems that are implemented into autonomous vehicles, including the limits of sensing technology and the way that impacts how a robotic system recognizes objects, maps its surroundings, follows paths and detects traffic signs.

Through in-person demonstrations, graduate students tested a shoebox-sized autonomous car’s ability to assess changes in its environment and navigate itself. High schoolers were able to ask questions, watch and interact with the vehicles.

Nikki Van Handel, a master’s student in the systems engineering program, conducted one of the presentations.

“Usually with a final project, there’s an expectation that you’re following a rubric and marketing your final project to your grader,” Van Handel said. “In this case, we really had to pivot in our presentation development.”

Looking to lifelong learning

Rothkopf believes the high school’s relationship with ASU and its focus on preparing students for higher education sets ASU Preparatory Academy apart.

“Students feel like Sun Devils from day one,” he said. “(ASU Preparatory Academy’s) curriculum is designed to help students find their potential and develop an understanding of what they would like to do for their postsecondary education.”

That goal is directly aligned with the Fulton Schools’ foundational identity to expose engineering and technology students to hands-on, impactful projects from their first day.  

Ariana Adrian, a senior at ASU Preparatory Academy, has already enrolled to study software engineering this fall at the Fulton Schools as a student in Barrett, The Honors College. She will complete the first year of her degree via ASU Universal Learner Courses, a program that offers introductory college courses for credit.

“After I learned to code, I started trying out the classes on ASU Universal Learner,” Adrian said. “It solidified my interest in software engineering.”

Zhao plans to continue integrating the showcase into future courses to generate positive connections in the community. He said that he enjoys the opportunity to get high school students excited about engineering and their education.

“I hope that exposure to engineering concepts and hands-on experience can help the high school students establish an interest in higher education that shapes their long-term career goals,” he said.

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