More than 600 middle and high school students who have been recruited into the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program from several Los Angeles area schools competed for the annual USC MESA Day Science Competition, hosted by the Viterbi School of Engineering on Saturday.
MESA was founded as a pre-college program by Viterbi in the 1970s to help educationally disadvantaged students in the greater Los Angeles area succeed in school by participating in hands-on learning programs and interactive competitions. As one of the primary founders of MESA, Viterbi hopes to interest students in science and math-related subjects and encourage them to pursue STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — when they graduate from high school.
The program targets specific high schools within 5 to 10 miles of the University Park campus. School participants include Alhambra High School, Belmont High School, Foshay Learning Center, Palisades Charter High School and South East High School. The majority of graduates from the MESA program have gone on to pursue science-related majors such as engineering and biology in college. Currently, it is estimated that there are a total of 1,200 high school students and 125 middle school students who participate in MESA.
Ben Louie, director of the MESA program and other Viterbi pre-college programs, emphasized that the objective of MESA is to help youth discover an interest in science, especially engineering.
“The goals of MESA Day is to excite students in science, technology, engineering, and math and to provide an opportunity for students to apply what they’ve learned in their classes in terms of concepts to real-world applications,” Louie said. “We make science fun, and we make math fun.”
During the MESA Day science preliminaries, students had the opportunity to compete in competitions that required them to use real-world applications in mathematics, science and engineering. All of the contest judgment criteria were aligned to California State Content Standards. Categories ranged from creating flying balsawood gliders and sliding mousetrap cars to modeling the human heart and the gastrointestinal tract.
The highlight of the MESA Day Preliminaries was the “Prosthetic Arm Challenge,” which incorporated concepts of life science and engineering. This contest challenged students to design, test and build a prosthetic arm that could pick up a beanbag and toss it into target zone. The arm had to be able to move different objects on a table into a crate.
Several contests during the preliminaries were hosted in various areas on campus including the Engineering Quad, Seeley G. Mudd Hall, Olin Hall of Engineering, Ronald Tutor Hall, Stauffer Science Lecture Hall, Salvatori Computer Science Center and Mudd Hall of Philosophy.
Members from different Viterbi organizations, including Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and Society of Women Engineers (SWE), volunteered to judge competitions and guide the competing teams.
Leilani Rebolledo, community outreach and membership chair for SPE, said that her organization supports the event because MESA motivates and prepares local Los Angeles middle and high school students to pursue a higher degree of education in the STEM fields.
Rebolledo expressed her enthusiasm in making MESA Day a success. “[We] have expressed excitement to be able to positively influence and guide young students to discover the opportunities within the STEM fields,” Rebolledo said.
Many other organizations at USC also support MESA programs and events throughout the year.
“SPE has hosted interactive workshops on the Oil and Gas Industry for College Day, has held a panel of SPE members informing and inspiring students to pursue a higher degree of education, as well as aided with the MESA Engineering Symposium where SPE members mentored teams of middle school students on fun hands-on science activities,” Rebolledo said.
Panda Express is the sole sponsor of this year’s competition. Panda Express and its Panda Cares charity program has partnered with USC MESA for 15 years to promote the spirit of caring and giving. For MESA Day, Panda Express provided 25 employees from its company to judge the different competitions as well as lunch for all the attendees.
“Panda Express does this every single year and we’re grateful to have them as a partner; and without them we wouldn’t be able to bring in 700 high school kids and then feed them and run all of these different competitions,” Louie said.
High school students who won the preliminary rounds of MESA Day “Prosthetic Arm Challenge” will be moving on to the Senior MESA Day regional completion, which will also be hosted on the USC campus on April 25. The subsequent national competition will be held in Utah.