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Teens Geek Out At SMU's Summer Engineering Camp

Bill Zeeble
Curriculum creator Parker Holloway (left hand over his mouth) works with the teen team that came up with the louder, longer-lived alarm clock.

Throughout the summer, high school and junior high students have been gathering at Southern Methodist University for week-long engineering camps. High schoolers tackled a tough challenge. Devise - then build – one of several electronic items like an alarm clock or home burglary system.  Only make it smaller, cheaper and faster than what’s out there. And finish it in just days.

Everyone’s deadline-busy in SMU’s maker-space – the Deason Innovation Gym. With the clock ticking, Conrad High School 17 year-old Chan Hnin and his three team mates are building their own, unusual, alarm clock.

“The battery life is way longer and it’s also louder than your phone,” Chan says. “Some people are sleepy headed, you know?”

Chan’s on one of four teams of high school boys here to learn real engineering through hands-on experience.  London Morris, from Lancaster High School, explains why their clock’s an improvement.

“We’re human so we end up messing up and making mistakes,” London says. “I will forget to charge my phone throughout the night, so my phone goes dead, I don’t hear my alarm, I oversleep. I have an alarm clock right there to wake me up. That’s why we built this alarm.”

These boys, all awake now, are here for a week. There’s an all-girls camp too. This boy’s camp is free - it’s based on family income. Some other weekly camps come with tuition. No matter which camp, all kids have to show they can handle it, through grades and teacher recommendations. Teens learn to solder, program small Raspberry Pi computers, use a laser cutter, 3D printer, and code, which few have ever done.

Recent SMU engineering graduate Parker Holloway came up with the curriculum after working his undergrad summers here teaching kids. He wants to spark passion.

“If you go and you sit in class in an engineering class and listen to theory for four years, then you’re going to enter the workforce and have a job you don’t love,” Holloway says.

Instead he says, get involved as a student, solving real-life challenges like a real, working engineer would, in a working lab.

“Then,” Holloway continues, “you can start your job after four years and it’s something that you’re looking forward to.”

It works, says Heather Hankamer, who runs this program designed to put students on the college engineering track. She’s followed kids from these programs for six years.

“For this program in particular, 55% of the kids get a higher education in engineering,” Hankamer says.  

Woodrow Wilson High School’s Joshua Reveles is thinking along those lines. He’s already on his school’s robotics team. His team for this camp is developing a safe with an internal, electronic lock. Their prototype’s made of composite wood and plastic parts from the shop’s laser cutter and 3D printer.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Joshua Reveles tinkers with his teams' prototype project, a safe with an electronic, internal lock nearly impossible to crack or hack.

“Unless if you’re hitting it with a nuclear, it won’t be broken open,” Joshua says. “The lock mechanism is what we find interesting because you could unlock it through  a phone, but not only would you have to unlock the person’s phone to get into it, the application itself would have a password that only you would know because it would not save it on your phone.”

Saving a life is the idea behind the project Demonte Roberts’ team is working on. He sits by the laser printer that’s creating a case for a disability monitor they hope will catch irregular heartbeats. The Cedar Hill Collegiate High student is glad he caught this summer camp.

“I’ll get bored easily with a lot of stuff. If I’m good at something I don’t want to do it anymore,” Demonte says. “But I’m creative and I like to build stuff. So this is the place for me.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Demonte Roberts sits by the 3D printer his team gets to use for its project, at SMU's week-long engineering camp.

Not a bad option for a hot summer week in Dallas.