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UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Undergraduate engineers, Birch Aquarium collaborate on innovative exhibits

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Students demonstrate their albedo effect project at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo courtesy of Birch Aquarium.

San Diego, CA, Dec. 19, 2017 -- Making complicated scientific concepts easily relatable to everyone from toddlers to senior citizens is no small task. Take the albedo effect, for example. The albedo effect is a number describing the fraction of light reflected off Earth and back to the atmosphere. It’s not exactly an easy-to-visualize idea, but take 10 UC San Diego students, 10 weeks and 1 air hockey table, and you’ve got a functional museum exhibit.

These 10 UC San Diego students left an indelible mark on the Birch Aquarium this summer thanks to the Summer Engineering Experience (SEE) internship program. SEE was designed by the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering to provide sophomore and junior engineering students with hands-on experience creating, pitching and developing a project from start to finish. The staff at Birch Aquarium were so pleased with the albedo effect air hockey table and an interactive radio-frequency identification (RFID) system that they plan to incorporate the two student projects into their new exhibit.

 “We are in a real-world setting, and our job at the aquarium is to take very complex science and somehow make it accessible to the broad public,” said Harry Helling, executive director of Birch Aquarium at a Changemaker Day panel on the inaugural SEE internship program, which is expected to become an annual offering. “We had this wonderful opportunity to work with the Jacobs School of Engineering, and we put a couple of pretty complicated problems on the table for the students to solve — we are ecstatic with how they solved them.”

The albedo effect was one of the complicated concepts a team of five students and their graduate student mentor was tasked with communicating. As second year bioengineering major Yousef Elafrangi, who worked on this project during the 10-week internship puts it, the albedo effect is a number describing the fraction of light reflected off Earth and back to the atmosphere. Light surfaces — like ice for example — will have a high number, while dark surfaces — such as an ocean — will have low numbers, signifying that they absorb a lot of light and heat.

The team eventually settled on designing and building an exhibit that functions similarly to an air hockey table. As museum-goers add Styrofoam pieces (to replicate ice) to the table (replicating an ocean), the albedometer reading increases, and the lights around the table turn blue to signify cooling. As users take the would-be ice blocks off the table, the lights turn red and the albedo number decreases, which means that less light and heat are being reflected away from the Earth.

Nan Renner, senior director of learning design and innovation at the aquarium, said the students’ concepts and final prototypes exceeded their expectations.

“This was a great deal for us because we got these fabulous prototypes and wonderful creative ideas,” Renner said. “It helped us too, because in some cases you forced us to get clearer about what we were trying to do.”

While the benefit to Birch Aquarium is a positive outcome, the intended purpose of the Summer Engineering Experience is to provide students with real-world internship experience. This experience can be exceedingly competitive to acquire during the first few years of students’ undergraduate studies, but can help them decide what types of engineering or what career path they want to pursue after they graduate.

“There is a gap for engineers getting their first job — industry is looking for engineers ready to go on day one who have real world experience, and the best that we can do is emulate that in the classroom,” said Jesse DeWald, staff director of the EnVision Arts and Engineering Maker Studio at UC San Diego, who developed and organized the Summer Engineering Experience.  “Students apply for summer internships to get that experience, but in order to get these very competitive summer internships, you also have to have experience. So you’re back to square one.

“That’s where the Summer Engineering Experience came to be — in thinking about how do we solve this cyclical problem of students trying to find experience, and not being able to get it without experience,” said DeWald.

Bryle Castro, a computer science major and one of the few seniors in the program, said he has seen the benefit of SEE already.

“I learned more from this internship than anything I’ve learned in classes,” Castro said. “I’ve never really built anything — I’ve destroyed stuff and hacked, but it’s really cool to actually build something. I’m graduating this year so this really helped out a lot. After this internship I already have interviews scheduled with a lot of companies.”

Castro was on the second team of students, tasked with creating an interactive radio-frequency identification (RFID) system for the aquarium’s exhibits, so guests can personalize their experience.

“As we rethink our future here at the Aquarium, one of the things this partnership has done for us is helped us to build a culture of creativity and innovation in our space,” Helling said. “You all have helped us in ways you probably didn’t imagine when you started this.”

In addition to the learning and resume-building experience the students gained over the summer, they also received a stipend thanks to the support of Hologic, a medical technology company focused on improving health through early and accurate detection of disease.

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Media Contacts

Katherine Connor
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-534-8374
khconnor@eng.ucsd.edu