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Meet Mahika - the future of Smart engineering is in safe hands

01 February, 2018

It’s a little-known fact but engineering innovation is being led by a six-year-old. Mihika Sharma, a winner at the Primary Engineer Leaders Award (London) 2016 has had her design selected by the competition partner UCL to be made by a team from the Faculty of Engineering Sciences. Chris Rochester is the regional director for Primary Engineer Programmes reports.

Mihika Sharma’s design, ‘The Smart Stick’ is a device to aid the visually impaired, which wowed the Primary Engineer Leaders Award judges last year with its ingenuity and the desire to engineer solutions to help others. The competition, which asks primary and secondary pupils to interview engineers and design a response to the question, ‘If you were an engineer, what would you do?’ is the London regional version of the highly successful competition in Scotland which has seen over 22,000 children take part.

When I joined Mahika and her parents at UCL to meet with the team, I ask her if she’s excited about her design being made. A timid smile and nod answers the question, which belies her confidence when talking about her design with the team. The team, Dan Mannion, Nedeen Al Sharif and Dipen Upadhyaya, all third year engineering students from the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at UCL, discuss Mahika’s revised design that she’s brought along with her – she’s been considering and improving the shape of the handle.

Quietly she explains her inspiration to us, “My mum was helping a blind lady across the road but she tripped up”.

Mahika’s mum, Manisha, reveals the full story: “Mihika was with me when this happened. We were going to Greenwich Museum for family fun day. I helped a blind lady to cross the road. I accidently forgot to mention to her that there was a step and she tripped over. Mihika was very angry at me. She said to me I will make a stick for blind people which will help them walk safely by themselves. After we finished doing the activities, we had a picnic outside the museum. It was then she drew her first design.”

Her design updates the iconic white stick, creating a modern aid which has a vibrate alert for obstacles, a water sensor and alert and which provides audio warnings to the user via Bluetooth - a Smart Stick indeed.

The discussions focus in on the vibrate alert Mahika has included and she candidly explains that: “We need to detect the obstacles at the bottom. It vibrates when there’s an obstacle and it tells them how to avoid it.” Nedeen, (who earlier this year received the Cisco Award for Most Outstanding Female Engineering Student) is admittedly in awe: “I love the fact that Mahika is an inquirer and she also has the ability to think analytically and critically by continuously adjusting her project to increase its power efficiency and reduce the number of components needed in the design.” Or in Mahika’s words, “I like connecting things and making stuff”.

Our discussions move to the workshops where Mahika starts selecting materials and components including a range of LEDs to be included on the stick. Clearly, these are not for the person using the stick and as I wonder if it’s whimsical and decorative, Mahika informs me otherwise, “I put LEDs on so people can see the blind person and the stick in the dark”, which is followed up by her amazing Nedeen with her ability to describe and differentiate between the anode and cathode on the LEDs she is selecting.

The praise is echoed by Dan, “her phenomenal analytical skills meant her ideas went from drawings to specifications in next to no time” and echoed by Dippen, “She knows about programming, LEDs and lots of other components and has built a water detector circuit” – both use the word inspiring.

And inspiration is the point, the point why the Primary Engineer Leaders Award asks children to interview engineers to find out who they are, what they do, what inspires them, what kind of projects they work on and for that to inspire school pupils to realise the creativity and ingenuity of engineering and design a solution to a problem. When I ask Mahika’s parents about this they explain how the competition fuelled the enquiring mind that is Mahika, “She is always taking things apart”. Manisha tells me it has become a family joke, “My husband is always asking why the house is such a mess” she laughs. So does the inspiration come from them? “No, we are both doctors” Manisha explains but she makes it her job to not answer Mahika and her brother’s questions but to help them investigate online and through experiments some of which can now be viewed online as they have filmed themselves investigating DNA, and salt water battery open and closed circuits amongst others.

It’s the basic premise of the Primary Engineer schools programmes – stimulate, investigate and enjoy with an emphasis on the practical – tinkering is the way forward, which Mahika describes with her broken nightlight story.

“My nightlight was broken so I made a new one from playdough and a battery and a LED and then I cut paper to make a shade”.

It’s the model of messy learning, from amongst the bread boards, LEDs, snap circuits and other components littering her room Mahika’s curiosity is stimulated and solutions to problems are made.

Back in the workshop the conversations around the sensors and the vibrate alerts continue with Mahika refining her design to make the water sensor alert different to the obstacle alert. Materials discussions have begun, although the team explain that not all the decisions have to be made today and when they next meet to start making the Smart Stick Mahika can hone her engineering skills and amend and refine her decisions.

So how does it feel to be an engineering team led by a six year old? Nadeen explains: “She has great leading skills, she was able to work with a group of older engineers with great self-confidence and with determination on how to make the design…even though she is young in age she has a great work attitude and knowledge.”

I look to Mahika’s parents for their thoughts on the impact of the Primary Engineer Leaders Award on Mahika, what it’s brought to her. “Confidence” Manisha tells me.“she is more confident now, she believes I can do more of this stuff”. which of course succinctly defines the reason for the competition, to encourage more children to have the confidence to do more of this stuff; also known as engineering.

Images courtesy of UCL Engineering

For information about how to get your child’s school, your local school and yourself (as an engineer to be interviewed) involved in this years competition, please visit: www.leadersaward.com

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