JEMS institute introduces teens to transportation engineering

From the Moscow-Pullman Daily News
MOSCOW - Fifty science-minded teenagers from across the country experienced university life for the first time during the University of Idaho's Junior Engineering, Math and Science program on campus in Moscow.

The two weeks of engineering and problem-solving classes and activities culminated in the JEMS Summer Transportation Institute, in which students will designed working scale-models of energy-efficient vehicles meant to move people around urban areas and university campuses. Students who successfully completed the program received two college credits in introductory engineering.

Sue Branting, a JEMS program coordinator and UI College of Engineering staff member, said the UI has hosted a youth engineering camp in some form for the past 40 years, but the current incarnation of JEMS is about 15 years old. She said students must meet three criteria before they are admitted into the program - they must have completed their junior year of high school, have at least a 3.0 grade point average and have taken at least three years of high school math and science.

She said JEMS, which is funded by an Idaho Transportation Department grant, is a great way to introduce high school students to all aspects of engineering, not just the parts that involve building roads and bridges. Most university engineering students take science and math classes their first two years before they move onto more hands-on engineering work as upperclassmen, she said. With JEMS, the students are able to get a taste of all of that in just two weeks before they've even officially enrolled in college.

The UI partnered with the Moscow company IVUS Energy Innovations, which was founded by UI alumni, for the transportation project because IVUS' ultracapacitor technology is a fast-recharging power source for the vehicles the JEMS students designed, Branting said. An ultracapacitor is similar to a battery but uses electrostatic energy instead of chemical energy, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Branting said the students had to figure out how to recharge their vehicles' ultracapacitors with something other than traditional "on the grid" electricity.

Helping the JEMS students along the way were seven UI engineering student counselors who supervised the teenagers during their free time and help them with their homework.

Kevin Ferry, a junior civil engineering major and lead counselor for JEMS, said some of the high school students didn't know what to expect when they arrived on campus. They stayed in the Theophilus Tower residence hall and ate most of their meals on campus.

"They enjoyed their classes," he said Tuesday afternoon while the teenagers were in class. "They said electrical engineering gave them a little trouble, but I told them we should be able to help them."

Program coordinator Corey Eifert agreed the sudden immersion into the college experience was a bit of a shock for some of the younger students.

"Some of them were a little overwhelmed, saying, 'Holy cow, I have to do a project on campus,' " she said. But because the students were of different skill levels, Eifert said they helped each other and figured out problems in groups, which is what professional engineers do almost every day.

Branting said JEMS is a good head start for the "really smart, bright kids" who are excelling in high school science and math but may not have the study skills to succeed in college. She said high school comes easy to some of those students, but they will have to get used to a bigger homework and test load in college. JEMS is a graded program that can affect the students' eventual college transcripts.

"We don't allow them to come just because they want to come," she said. "They have to have that aptitude in math and science."

In addition to the on-campus classes and activities, the students took field trips to Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman, the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute in Moscow and the Lower Granite Lock and Dam on the Snake River in southern Whitman County.

Branting said JEMS is an important recruiting tool for the College of Engineering. Some students have traveled to Moscow from as far away as Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and out of the 50 teenagers attending this year, 18 of them were female. That's an increase from only six participating girls last year, she said.

"We have to provide opportunities like this for students to come and see what we're all about," she said.

JEMS participant Austin Beasley, 17, from Waitsburg, Wash., said the program was "awesome" after just a few hours of classes and hands-on activities. He said he's now considering attending the UI when he does enroll in college.

"I wasn't when I first got here, but this is a really awesome school," Beasley said.

Published 7-23-2010