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Engineering the Entrepreneurial Spirit

CSUF Students Engage Teens in STEM Learning
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A sensor-based heart rate monitor that detects a low pulse. A robotic arm that can do housework. A device that can charge a mobile phone while riding on a skateboard.

Together, Cal State Fullerton engineering and business majors and junior high students used their imaginations and created these — and more — innovative products and inventions.

They got creative with over-the-top ideas, pitched concepts, developed business plans and built prototypes to solve real-world problems as part of CSUF’s “Strategies: Science, Technology and Engineering Mini-Business Incubator” project.

Known as STEM-Inc, the after-school project with Anaheim Union High School District is funded by a $1 million National Science Foundation grant to advance STEM learning among underrepresented junior high students.

Nine CSUF engineering and business administration majors mentored about 120 students this spring at Ball, Brookhurst, Lexington and South junior high schools to introduce them to both STEM and the process of starting a business.

“The goal is to make junior high school students and their parents aware of STEM fields and career paths by involving them in exciting, real-world projects focusing on engineering, computer science, business and entrepreneurship concepts,” said Jidong Huang, associate professor of electrical engineering, who is directing the three-year project, which continues this fall.

Critical thinking, teamwork and entrepreneurship were integral aspects of the students’ products and inventions, presented earlier this month at a STEM-Inc Project Showcase at the school district.

Throughout the school year, CSUF student mentors, who also worked with school district teachers, supervised STEM activities, gaining leadership and project management skills, said faculty adviser Pradeep Nair, assistant professor of computer engineering.

“To my surprise, I actually learned a lot from the students,” said student mentor Jomar Gonzalo, an electrical engineering major. “Just by observing them, I noticed the amount of energy and creativity they had. This inspired me to keep reaching my goals as a student and future engineer.”

It was the intentional blending of engineering, computer science, business and entrepreneurship that faculty leaders hoped would appeal to the young students, said Huang, adding that the teens readily relate to today’s famous entrepreneurs, many of whom also are engineers.

“The idea that the junior high students could actually create real-world products — and maybe change the world — was the lynch pin,” added John B. Jackson, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship. “To stimulate interest in STEM education and careers, we used entrepreneurship to gameify the experience.”

Student mentor Amerika Bernal, a business administration-accounting major, said it was the merger of engineering and business that intrigued her.

“This program exposed me to a much different field than mine, and it gave me an understanding on how engineers work,” said Bernal, who aspires to start her own company. “Entrepreneurship and engineering are fields that I am deeply passionate about, and to have the opportunity to mentor our youth to be business savvy individuals, is a true honor.”

From his own experience, Gonzalo gave some advice to the budding engineers and entrepreneurs: “When a new invention or product is being developed, it usually never works well the first time, and it is from trial and error that we learn. So my hope is that the students learned to persevere … to never give up.”

Bernal told students that with a lot of creativity and determination, it is possible to make a significant impact in the world by pursuing a STEM field.

“I also hope I inspired them to follow their hearts and pursue their dreams with all they’ve got.”

Amy Cox-Petersen, professor of elementary and bilingual education, also is involved in the project. The other student mentors are: Brent Fritz (mechanical engineering); electrical engineering majors Julio Gallardo and Tim Rotter; and graduate student Vindhya Darshan (computer science); also, 2015 grads Adriana Cardenas (B.S. electrical engineering), Ye Lu (M.S. electrical engineering); and Monica Mercado (B.S. business administration).