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RPI Brings Biomechanics to Emma

By Melissia Mason
A group of Emma Willard School students recently participated in a three-part program on cellular biology and biomechanics, presented on the Emma campus by the Engineering Ambassadors (EAs) from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). 
With an award winning assertion-evidence presentation style—coupled with engaging, hands-on engineering design challenges—RPI’s EAs motivate students to consider career paths in STEM fields. Elizabeth Herkenham, who directs the K-13 outreach program at RPI, explains that the EAs are made up of Rensselaer undergraduate and graduate engineering students who believe that science and engineering play a key role in solving the grand challenges facing humanity. “Since its inception in 2011, the RPI EAs have engaged over 50,000 students in the Capital Region of upstate New York and beyond,” she shares. 

Science Instructor Jon Calos worked with Elizabeth to bring the team to campus. “I’ve known Elizabeth and been familiar with the EA program for years,” he shares. “It’s funny that it never occurred to us to do a program at Emma Willard before.” The two decided it was time to rectify the oversight, taking advantage of the two schools' close proximity to one another in order to augment Emma's own STEM programming.

Christina Rogers, a current graduate student in mechanical engineering, has been an EA since she was an undergrad and led the program at Emma. Throughout her time at RPI, she has worked with Dr. Kristen Mills, who runs the Mills Lab at RPI. “In my lab, we engineer experimental models of tissues in order to study how tumor cells interact with their physical, biological, and chemical environment,” Dr. Mills explains. Their goal is to identify the mechanisms that promote the growth of tumor cells. “We created the series of outreach modules that were debuted at Emma Willard in order to introduce students to a role that engineers can play in researching human health.”

The module presentations and interactive labs covered tissues and their mechanics, how cells push and pull, and mechanics and health. “On the first day, we were given some different materials and had to research which would best match the tissue we were given and why the properties of that material were analogous to our tissue's utility in the body,” explains Ava S. ’22, who particularly enjoyed the lectures. 

Meli N. ’23 shared that the experience with RPI was an opportunity to re-engage with subject matter that she hadn’t thought about since seventh grade. “I am currently interested in majoring in biomedical engineering, so I thought the opportunity would be very fitting for me. The experience only furthered that interest. It exposed me to questions and problems that currently exist about the human body, which made me think about ways that these problems could be solved. It was a great peek into the field and I am excited to learn about these topics in the future.”

Christine and her fellow ambassadors aim to inspire all students, especially those who may not otherwise consider a career in STEM. “The students at Emma Willard were a pleasure to work with and very engaged with the material,” she shares. “All the Engineering Ambassadors involved enjoyed working with them!

Emma students will have more opportunities to engage with the EAs as they explore “The Internet of Things” later this spring. We are excited to see how they will use this experience to pursue their passions and find new opportunities to feed their intellectual curiosity.
    • Students race through ladders made from materials with different mechanical properties to feel what it's like for a cell to migrate through different mechanical environments.

    • Groups brainstormed designs for different artificial organs made from household objects—based on information about mechanical properties and function of the organ they just learned about. They took into account the behavior of the materials they observed.

    • Students ran macroscale versions of experiments done in research labs across the country to mechanically characterize materials. Here they are placing weights on different types of gels to measure how the shape of the gel changes to gain insight into the mechanical properties of the gels.

    • Blowing up balloons using a hand pump embedded in the same gels from station 1, students observe the resistive forces to expansion that are placed on the balloon. This mimics the environment a tumor is in when it is trying to expand and how the environment a tumor is in can affect the way it expands and grows.

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Honoring its founder’s vision, Emma Willard School proudly fosters in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world.
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