UConn’s Nanoelectronics Lab: Building Community

By Deepti Boddapati (CLAS ’14)

The popular conception of engineering labs as sterile rooms where white-coated intellectuals gather to indulge in fundamental studies having only remote consequence to average citizens is – thankfully – being supplanted as society learns more about how engineers are transforming society.

Over the summer, UConn’s Nanoelectronics Lab, headed by Drs. Ali Gokirmak and Helena Silva, hosted two middle school teachers, Doug and Annie Perkins, and seven high school student who were participants in UConn’s Mentor Connection summer program. The two researchers and their graduate students involved the visitors in a variety of research projects involving electronics that expanded the reach of the UConn engineering community.

The first project that they worked on was the ‘optical audio link.’  In this project they engineered transmitter and receiver circuits to transmit music through lasers. The transmitter circuit modulated the intensity of the laser pointer with the music input from an iPod® and the receiver picked up the laser signal and played the music on a speaker. The task familiarized the participants with concepts of voltage, current, and resistance. “It was a very intensive program. It required a full week of lecturing to get them up to speed on these concepts,” said Dr. Gokirmak.

UConn students did the teaching. Sean Fischer, currently a senior in Electrical Engineering (EE), did most of the instruction. Jonathan Rarey, an EE junior, showed them how to make their circuit boards and also drilled the boards for them. “We could have ordered the components but we thought it would be more fun for them to see how it was built,” said Dr. Gokirmak.  “By the end they built their own circuit boards and took them home to show their friends and family.”

Doug and Annie Perkins, seasoned UConn engineering “lab rats” who participated in the Joule Fellows and da Vinci Project previously, worked with the lab team to increase their knowledge about electronics so they could provide better instruction to their students. “Doug runs an enrichment program, so he has small group of kids who can actually build these devices,” said Annie Perkins.  The robotics clubs headed by both Perkinses will also benefit from their summer lab experience. “We were trying to learn more about electronics so we could better troubleshoot our robotics components,” explained Annie Perkins. Their experience will also help with expanding the classroom science modules dealing with electronics and robotics that are taught to all students.

Drs. Gokirmak and Silva had a different goal for the Mentor Connection participants, which was to get them excited about electronics. The Mentor Connection program pairs high school students with accomplished mentors for a three week summer program. “Mentor Connection students typically get really excited about electronics. They become interested when they see that you can build something very cool from a one dollar laser pointer, some simple circuitry and a small solar cell. It shows them that engineering is cool, something that is enjoyable,” said Dr. Gokirmak.

“This kind of activity shows students that engineering is fun and that we enjoy it. They come to our labs and see we are not only accomplishing things and making contributions to the world, we’re also having fun. When kids see people that are happy doing science, they might consider this for their careers,” he added.

Sean Fischer said that opening the lab to non-engineers proved to be more enlightening and educational than the usual summer research experience. “It’s different being on the other side of the lecture hall,” he remarked.  “It helped give me perspective on what my professors go through. Just last year, I was learning these concepts, and now I’m teaching them.  Seeing their struggles and hearing their questions reminded me of myself and helped me understand and explain the material better. I learned how to plan an explanation of a subject. I found that if you explain things in the right order, the concepts click with listeners. When they understood a topic, it gave me a lot of satisfaction – made me feel like I made a difference at least while they were here. This was more valuable than a simple research experience because it provided a way of interacting with people outside of the lab. If we have to explain our work at a conference, we need to tailor our presentation to our audience. Teaching this summer was a good way practice that.”

“Some people might ask, ‘why care about outreach when publishing papers gets so much more recognition?’ We say, it’s important because it helps our students to grow in different ways,” said Dr. Gokirmak.

“With the grants that the NSF gives us, we try to do something with broader impacts. Many of our research activities may not have any directly useable outcomes, but we train students, publish papers that might help others in our field and perform community outreach. Maybe 80% of our output is training a new generation of scientists and engineers. We expect the best outcomes if they get excited at an earlier age. In addition community helps our students gain a better perspective and broaden the vision of the middle school and high school students” said Dr. Gokirmak.

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