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Ventura County High School Students Learn Skills To Pursue Growing Engineering Field

There’s a growing need for people to fill jobs in a field of engineering called mechatronics, which combines mechanical and electrical engineering with computer programming. Some Ventura County teenagers are gaining the skills now to pursue such a career in the future.

“Let’s see if it works,” says 16-year-old EJ Soliza, who is testing out his small four-wheeled robot as it rolls around a maze and uses its sensors to avoid obstacles, like walls.

“Just learning how to program the robots that they already have built for us. Telling the robot what to do and seeing the outcome that it actually works,” he says. “It’s something new to me – programming and everything. And it’s pretty fun so far. And, I’m considering it for a future job.”

Soliza is one of 28 Ventura County high school students enrolled in this free mechatronics engineering bridge program at Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo where the teens are learning to program robots and other engineering basics.

Sixteen-year-old Christian Salameh says it’s a hands-on experience that he doesn’t get at his high school.

“Typically when you’re in a classroom, you just learn things in theory. You learn how things should work, but you don’t actually see them working. So, in this class, we actually see what our things do. We don’t just do things. We see how they apply to a robot. So, that’s what I liked about this class,” he says.

Cal State Channel Islands Professor Houman Dallali instructs these students in mechatronics. This hybrid of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering also happens to be a new major this fall at the university.

“Most of the jobs these days are really going through mechatronics and programming developments, so there’s a very close work between hardware and software these days. So, you have to know both to be able to be a good software programmer or a good hardware developer. If you have experience in mechatronics, you get the best of both worlds,” he says.

The goal is also to help diversify the field of engineering, says the university’s interim Director of Educational Partnerships Phil Hampton, who oversees the course.

“Students in this program largely come from campuses with high free and reduced lunch, so kids on the lower socio-economic scale and a very diverse student population – many Latina, Latino students in the program. So, we hope that these students will be the ones that will build the new engineering programs of the future,” he says.

In another classroom, students are programming a large robot -- almost five feet tall -- called Sparky.

The robot moves and then it crashes. 

“Kind of frustrated at the moment because it’s not working. And, we’re just like a bunch of trial and error right now. So, we have to go back and then test it again, go back and test it again,” says 15-year-old Paulina Tapia.

But, she says despite the challenges, the course is worth the while.

“This is like a new experience. And, so far, it’s been really fun. Yeah,” says Tapia.

The students are having a good time while learning important engineering skills.

Hampton says he hopes to encourage these teens to consider majoring in engineering – especially mechatronics at Cal State Channel Islands, which is one of the few universities in the region to offer such a program. And, perhaps become a future mechatronics engineer.

“I hope that what students will experience is that ‘I can be it. I can be a college student. I can succeed in a college-bearing course. I can pursue a career like this,’” he says.