Outreach Program Blends Fashion and Engineering

San Diego, Calif., July 15, 2011 -- The winner of this year’s Del Mar Opening Day hat contest could owe more to Intel and Texas Instruments than Gucci and Dior.

MyLab @ Variability Expedition's outreach program director, Saura Naderi, discusses Girl's Hat Day project.

About two dozen girls will compete in the celebrated sartorial competition at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club wearing fancy hats they built in the engineering workshops at the University of California, San Diego.

The girls are making race-inspired hats driven by gears and electronics for the competition as part of a six-week, hands-on engineering program held at the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

“The whole experience is designed to expose the girls to what an engineer does, in a fun and engaging way,” says the Director of Calit2’s MyLab @ Variability Expedition, Saura Naderi.

Ranging in age from 7 to 16, the girls are participating in the Girl’s Hat Day program, which is funded by a $15,000 grant from ViaSat (a producer of satellite and other digital communications).

Naderi is supported primarily by Variability Expedition, a $10 million project directed by Calit2 Associate Director Rajesh Gupta and funded by the National Science Foundation to design software that coordinates efficient computing with nanoscale devices. Naderi is in charge of Variability Expedition’s community outreach program in San Diego.

Naderi collaborated with Town and Country Village Learning Center to recruit many of the girls for the program, which will teach them the basics of electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering. Mentoring the program participants are a dozen mostly women engineers from UCSD, ViaSat, Qualcomm and SPAWAR.

This year, 40,000 race fans are expected to attend Opening Day at Del Mar. Spectators have sported creative, glamorous hats since the race’s first Opening Day in 1937, and the more fashion-minded spectators participate in the ‘One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest’. The Girl’s Hat Day girls, wearing matching blue dresses, will enter their hats in the ‘Funniest or Most Outrageous’ category.

Gian Mario Maggio
Sophie Williams and a volunteer mentor from ViaSat, Gina Tuazon, construct a hat for Opening Day at the Del Mar horse races

Naderi, a UCSD engineering physics graduate who has lived in Del Mar with her family since she was five, says she’s “always appreciated the Del Mar horse races and I’ve always enjoyed the hats on Opening Day.”

“There just seem like endless possibilities with hats. Around San Diego, nobody really cares about hats except for this one day out of the year, and it’s just really a nice way to express creativity. The hats there are ridiculously amazing.”

One of Naderi’s earliest memories of the horse races at Del Mar was convincing her father to let her bet her week’s allowance on a race. She picked a horse at random, and when she found out it was a long shot (“I really had no understanding of ‘odds’” she says), Naderi had her father change the bet. The long shot ended up winning the race, which meant she lost out on $80. She swore off gambling from that point forward.

Naderi’s first experience with Opening Day came last summer, when she debuted her first electronic hat. The hat was designed to be interactive, allowing two people to ‘race’ two mechanical horses around the hat’s brim by shining laser pointers at sensors embedded in flowers positioned near the front of the hat.

She never got all the bugs worked out, but the hat was a hit. After a handful of young students in a robotics workshop she led last summer raved about the hat, Naderi was inspired to develop a workshop for girls to make their own hats for this year’s Opening Day contest.  

Some of the hat designs include:

-    a strip of light emitting diodes (LEDs) and an LCD screen that can display predetermined messages by pressing a matrix of buttons

-    moving figurines that tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears

-    a hat that opens up revealing a stage and a dancing horse

-    a menagerie of flora and fauna that spring into life with when activated by shining a light at an optical sensor

Saura Naderi and Student
Director of MyLab, Saura Naderi, helps Camila Gonzales try on her unfinished SpongeBob SquarePants-themed hat

-    chipmunks that dance in response to a girl singing into a microphone

-    SpongeBob SquarePants-themed hat, where all the characters are mechanized

A large number of the hats incorporate not only mechanical racing horses, but also dancing bunnies, butterflies and ladybugs. Several of the hats sing, thanks to miniature soundcards repurposed from drugstore greeting cards. LEDs are also a popular accoutrement on many of the hats. 

“When we got the LEDs working, the girls’ faces glowed as brightly as the LEDs,” says project mentor and Qualcomm mechanical engineer Malati Patil, who says she’s enjoying working with the girls as well as “refreshing my own basic knowledge of electronics.”

Adds Naderi: “The girls are really learning what goes into making something, from all of the parts and tools that are needed to the mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science skills required to design and build stuff.”

Jim Rohr, project mentor and director of the STEM Outreach Program at SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific, says the girls are learning another invaluable lesson. 

“In addition to building really cool hats, this project is letting the girls know that our culture values people, and importantly, women, who pursue careers in engineering.”

Bringing Technology Down to Earth

The MyLab program at Calit2 launched in 2009 with the goal of bringing hands-on science and engineering experiences to the local community through outreach projects that typically blend art and technology. In 2010, the program hosted a dozen year-long UCSD undergraduate interns. This year, Naderi is supervising about 50 interns from many of UCSD’s engineering disciplines as well as computer science.

During the academic year, MyLab offers workshops to undergraduates and hands-on science courses at local schools. Last year’s one-day electric guitar pedal workshop drew more than 30 participants and last year’s 8 week-long Moonbot Challenge led 15 children through the process of building their own robots.

The MyLab program is becoming quite popular among UCSD’s engineering students. For a recent project redesigning a recreation room at the South Metro Career Center, Naderi received more than 40 applications for the 13 intern positions within the first week. The South Metro project was done in collaboration with HYPE -- Helping Youth Pursue Excellence, a volunteer youth organization -- and was funded by the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

The HYPE members came up with 10 different design concepts for the recreation room, three of which were chosen for the engineers to execute, including: ‘Tables of Wisdom’ (whiteboard art tables that can link together to form a large workspace or be popped out and flipped around for intimate whiteboard teaching sessions); ‘Chairs of Knowledge’ (chairs with built in shelves that eliminate the need for book shelves lining the room) and ‘Screens of Information’ (touch screen TVs where details about the center’s various programs could be accessed, replacing a wall full of pamphlets).

Puzzle piece used in 'Treasure Hunt in the Sky' program for Oak Crest Middle School students
Celestial puzzle piece used in 'Treasure Hunt in the Sky' program

For this past year’s ‘Treasure Hunt in the Sky’ program (also funded with a grant from ViaSat), Naderi and a handful of interns taught basic physics and cosmology to eighth graders at Oak Crest Middle School in Encinitas. The program interspersed lectures on scientific topics with practical exercises, including using satellite dishes to track orbiting satellites. The students also constructed maps of our galaxy and surrounding galaxies with giant puzzle pieces decked out with rotating heavenly bodies and LEDs indicating principles like the speed of light and black body radiation.

Though Naderi says not everything worked (“we should have anticipated having 30 kids operate a single satellite dish at a time wasn’t going to go over so well,” she adds), she’s excited they have been invited back next year.

Naderi hopes that bringing together the UCSD students and the middle school students will change the young students’ minds about what is possible for their futures. “It’s important to show that the goal of attending a top-notch school is attainable. The reputation of UCSD now is that you need a crazy GPA to get in, and so kids were writing it off immediately, thinking there was no way to get in,” she says.

From the Community Center to Hollywood

When she’s not inspiring children with lectures and workshops on science and technology, Naderi designs dancing robots for pop stars. She has been commissioned to create a mechanized mannequin for the musical group Jessie and the Toy Boys, who are currently opening for Britney Spears on her “Femme Fatale” Tour.

“I love this job. I get to range from working with the underprivileged, to the privileged to Hollywood stars,” says Naderi.

The idea for the dancing robot was hatched last year at a family friend’s wedding, where Naderi met the group’s lead singer, Jessie Malakouti, discovered that they are distantly related.

Gian Mario Maggio
Mechanized mannequin made by Saura Naderi for "Femme Fatale" music tour 

When Naderi told Malakouti of her dream of making a group of robots that could mirror her every move on the dance floor, Malakouti immediately asked her to make a robot for the "Femme Fatale" Tour. It turns out that there is not enough time to set up the robot during the show (Jessie and the Toy Boys take the stage within seconds after the opening act DJ’s set ends), but the robot will rock the group’s shows later this fall during a different tour of the east coast.

“This is really the perfect job for me. I get to do science and be creative and artistic and touch on all my passions,” says Naderi, who describes her reign as president of her high school’s Art Club as “my first proud moment.”

Coming Soon – The Dream Room

In collaboration with UCSD's Center for Community Well-being, Naderi will lead another MyLab project in the fall of 2011 that brings together a team of undergraduate students to redesign a recreation room (dubbed ‘The Dream Room’) at the Town and Country Learning Center to incorporate the dreams of the youth who use the space. Each dream is represented by a visual element surrounded by several buttons that wirelessly communicate with a 3x3 video wall to visually present the pathways that a child can take to realize her dreams.

by Chris Palmer

Related Links

Variability Expedition

ViaSat

MyLab Program

Town and Country Village Learning Center

‘One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest’ at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club