Engineering pre-college program project leads to long-term collaboration and research discovery
In the summer of 2020, four students in Virginia Tech’s C-Tech2 program, designed for high school girls interested in engineering, started a project to turn an ordinary water bottle into a makeshift desalination system. Now, with the help of faculty member Jonathan Boreyko, their research is getting published in Soft Matter.
Virginia Tech’s C-Tech2 program is supposed to be a two-week, on-campus summer camp to get high school girls excited about engineering. But for four girls who attended the summer 2020 camp at the start of the pandemic, C-Tech2 began as something less, but proved to be a whole lot more.
Indeed, that camp from 18 months ago is, in a certain sense, just now coming to an end with the publication of their research in the journal Soft Matter.
“I just never expected to have the opportunity to work with a professor as a high schooler and to have a paper published,” said Laurel Hudson of Roanoke, Virginia.
C-Tech2 is an acronym of sorts for “Computers and Technology at Virginia Tech.” Founded in the early 1990s and hosted by the College of Engineering, the camp seeks to introduce girls to the world of engineering, a field in which women have historically been underrepresented.
“Only 22 percent of students in the College of Engineering are women,” said Kim Lester, director of pre-college programs for Virginia Tech’s Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED). “And that is typical of universities. Historically it’s been a man’s role. If you’re a female and you don’t have female role models, you’re not likely to look into that. We honestly get a lot of women in the program because a teacher told them, ‘Hey, you’re really good at math and science.’ And it’s never really dawned on them that they could do that.”
Up to 150 rising junior and senior high school students apply each year for C-Tech2. Only 60 are accepted. About half are from Virginia and the other half come from places across the country and around the world, including India, Hungary, and Ethiopia. During the two weeks, they work side by side with Virginia Tech faculty and learn about all the engineering disciplines — from civil, mechanical, and environmental to aerospace, computer, and cybersecurity.
“All faculty do this for free,” Lester said. “They definitely live out our motto, ‘Ut Prosim.’”
The campers also divide up into teams to work on individual projects, which is how Hudson met three other rising high school seniors: Kathleen Troy of Vienna, Virginia; Gracie Cornish of Williamsburg, Virginia; and Maia Vollen of Falls Church, Virginia. They were grouped together via Zoom at the June 2020 camp, which, like everything else in the world back then, had gone virtual.
For a project sponsored by General Electric, the group was tasked with transforming an ordinary object into an innovative design. They wondered if a regular water bottle with straw could incorporate a filter and the principles of gravity to desalinate salt water.
About that time at camp they met Jonathan Boreyko, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering who came to Virginia Tech in 2014 and had been working with C-Tech2 since 2016. Coincidentally, he had been studying the principles behind mangrove trees’ desalination powers.
The group approached Boreyko, who enthusiastically agreed to mentor them.
“I knew right away that we would get a paper out of this just from how persistent they were off the bat,” he said. “But I was still surprised at how independent and proactive they were. The tenacity and the joy that they brought to this project just really inspired me.”
Their online collaboration extended after C-Tech2 ended and all through their senior year of high school. Meeting at night online, the group would share findings with Boreyko, who admits the sessions were an unexpected joy as he found himself working from home while also caring for his four young children and expectant wife.
“Every week or two they would update me without any prompting on my part,” said Boreyko. “So in their senior year, during the COVID pandemic, in their free time at night, they worked completely independently together, without any nagging from me whatsoever, to make a graduate-level journal article. It was incredible.”
The article, “Transpiration-Powered Desalination Water Bottle,” was recently published by the journal Soft Matter.
“Inspired by mangrove trees, we present a theoretical design and analysis of a portable desalinating water bottle powered by transpiration,” reads the abstract. “We estimate that a 9.4cm diameter bottle, with a 10cm wide annular fin, could harvest about a liter of fresh water per day from ocean water.”
Work on the project continued through their first semesters of college this fall. Hudson, Troy, and Cornish are currently enrolled in Virginia Tech’s general engineering program (typically about 45 percent of C-Tech2 attendees matriculate into the College of Engineering).
“Getting offered the research paper was a major reason I chose Virginia Tech,” said Troy. “It showed that the staff and administration were willing to work with their students.”
Cornish added: “That was something that was very different from everywhere I visited. Everyone at Virginia Tech was just very in love with what they were doing. The Hokie spirit, you could feel that through the program even though it was virtual. On my end, even though I was miles and miles away from the actual school, I was able to develop a relationship with Tech.”
Vollen was also accepted into the program, but ultimately chose to attend St. Andrews in Scotland for financial economics and international relations. While Boreyko places all the credit on the students, Vollen said, “None of this would have been possible without him. It was always like a learning environment, and I feel like without his leadership and guidance there, I know that none of this would have been possible in the first place.”
- Written by Michael Hemphill