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ECE, DSSC Help CIT "Scout for Engineers"

July 3, 2012

ECE Professor and Data Storage Systems Center Associate Director James Bain stands in a laboratory on the Carnegie Mellon campus, surrounded by future leaders intent on his every word. Today's lesson is magnetism and learning a little bit about polarity. And while Bain is no stranger to lecturing the next generation of engineers on the finer points of electromagnetism or materials science, this crowd looks a little different from the ones he's used to.

After all, they top out at around four feet tall. And no one is older than 10.

Bain's magnetism lesson was all part of the College of Engineering's "Scouting for Engineers" event, an effort to bring hands-on experience with practical engineering problems to more than 40 Boys Scouts and Girls Scouts from across the Pittsburgh region. Each participant spent the morning working at different stations, where they had the chance learn about polymer chemistry by making shrinky-dinks, generate snow, or become experts at online safety by playing the Information Networking Institute's "MySecureCyberspace" game.

"We see this kind of activity as a way to get youth interested in engineering and science early on in their careers," said Annette Jacobson, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering.

Bain's task for the morning was using Geomag kits — toy construction sets with steel-coated balls and two-sided magnetic pegs — to instill a little knowledge about how magnetism works. Using the kits, he showed the scouts how opposites attract (the "alligator," because it's like they want to bite each other) and likes repel (or "pillow" because it's like a giant pillow gets between them.) Armed with five pegs, a metal stand to hold them, and a single peg to test the ones in the stand, the scouts could determine which pegs were alligators (A) and pillows (P). After that, they used a Morse-code like key of unique combinations of A's and Ps to magnetically "write" their initial, which their friends could check for accuracy.

"Obviously, we can't get into detail about how we magnetically record data on a hard drive with an audience this young," Bain said. "But what we can do is plant the seed, to tell them about how magnets work and how your computer uses them to store tons of information. And they have fun, too, which is a great way to show them that science and engineering are anything but boring."

After the scouts finished their stations, they all got a special Carnegie Mellon Scouting for Engineers badge from Pittsburgh Steelers mascot Steely McBeam. Then they ate cake.

And who knows? Maybe in 10 years, Bain will see them again in his lecture hall. They'll be a little taller then, but with any luck, no less enthusiastic.

(Scouting for Engineers also made headlines in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Photo of the Day section.)

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