MEDLab’s perennial engineering class for college-bound girls earns praise

A hands-on interactive class designed by graduate students in the Medical Engineering and Discovery Lab (MEDLab) for high school students drew enthusiastic reviews from a Nashville college-preparatory school group. Sessions included introduction to engineering and STEM, computer aided design, robotics and coding, bioinspired design, and a civil engineering module on structure design.

The three-week class, Structures, Technology and Robots or STARS, is part of Harpeth Hall’s premier January Winterim series that offers students career exploration and the possibility of finding new interests.

The students also took a trip to the Vanderbilt Institute for Surgery and Engineering (VISE) for a tour of the 7,000- square-foot research space where they observed a variety of engineering demonstrations including multimodal 3D printing, a materials science look at liquid metal research, and an exercise in applying virtual reality to surgical training.

“I’m really glad we prioritized the field trip this year. I think it really helped the girls connect class concepts to what we do here in VISE each day,” said Emily McCabe, MEDLab student and Harpeth Hall teaching lead. In addition to McCabe, this year’s teaching team included Abby Grillo, Piper Cannon, Peter Connor, Jack Peters and Jesse d’Almeida. The MEDLab, one of the core VISE labs, has been teaching this class at Harpeth Hall since 2012.

“It is amazing to think how many young women have experienced the excitement of engineering through this Winterim class in the past 11 years,” said Robert Webster III, MED Lab director and Richard A. Schroeder Professor in Mechanical Engineering.

“Back when Phil Swaney and Hunter Gilbert taught the class for the first time, none of us had any idea it would be so long-lasting and impactful,” Webster said. “We just knew that engineering in general would be better if there were more women in it, and that letting them experience it for themselves at an early age was the key. That the class has lasted so long and impacted so many is a testament to the energy and desire to give back that makes me proud of all our Vanderbilt graduate students.”

“It was really cool to see a real robotics lab and see medical robots,” freshman Zoe Eveland said. “It was interesting to see how things we learned about in class are implemented in a real robotics lab.“

In addition to the scientific components of the field trip, the girls were introduced to college and career options at Vanderbilt University. Women of VISE President Nhung Hoang took time to talk about the work Women of VISE does to make the Vanderbilt and VISE communities a place that fosters and promotes the scientific success of women in STEM fields.

Sophomore Anna Lamb was inspired to see how student leaders are creating inclusive environments within their field. “I especially appreciate the work that Women in VISE is doing to uplift the growing minority of women in the lab,” she said.

“I got to explore potential opportunities as PhD students and research assistants. My favorite part of the field trip was seeing Jesse’s robot and playing around with the VR tech,” Ashley Maliakal, sophomore, said.

The capstone project of the course involved the girls building robotic cars to compete in a variety of events including distance races, collection challenges, and a field test over their previously constructed bridges.

“Even though I came into the class unsure and knowing very little about engineering, I got a basic understanding of what engineering is and the many different roles it plays in the world around us,” Lamb shared. “I was pushed out of my comfort zone and grew to be a more confident team leader and more curious learner,” she said.

VISE is an interdisciplinary, trans-institutional structure designed to facilitate interactions and exchanges between engineers and physicians. It spans four engineering departments—electrical and computer engineering, computer science, mechanical, and biomedical—and involves Vanderbilt University Medical Center faculty members in more than 10 clinical departments.

Contact: Michelle Bukowski, 615-343-5447