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Project in a Box: Dream it. Build it.

Student-run program finds success on campus and off with hands-on learning experiences

child working on a project

Project in a Box is a way to introduce young children to engineering through a fun, interactive experience with their parents, friends and classmates. Photos by Phuong Truong, Project in a Box

An Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department program at UC San Diego designed to motivate and empower undergraduate students has found a creative way to challenge young people to think outside the box by first asking them to dive into one.

Project in a Box is a student-led organization at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering that originated in 2016 with a mission to make experiential learning more accessible to undergraduate students on campus.

“Project in a Box could be the start of a new hands-on learning approach in electrical and computer engineering where students translate theory into real-world applications,” said Truong Nguyen, ECE Department Chair. “We started with the goal of ensuring our students are equipped with the skills needed to find jobs and internships in a very competitive market–and they are. Now, thanks to our determined and talented student organizers, the program is expanding and inspiring other students in the broader San Diego community.”

robot project

The program aims to make hands-on learning of engineering skills accessible to students through the creation of fun projects like this robot that has the same technology as a Roomba.

The concept is simple: give students a box with instructions and all the components necessary to build a device—like a dancing robot, a digital Magic8 Ball or a candy sorter—that requires the application of engineering skills. Then, make a variety of projects to accommodate beginners through advanced users. And, finally, ask students to design new projects of their own to add to the Project in a Box roster.

Participants gain experience with engineering skills, such as basic programming, computer-aided design, mechanical control, soldering and 3D printing. Project in a Box’s popularity and success has led to the creation of additional hands-on courses in the ECE Department. It has also seen the number of organizers involved grow from 10 to 80 students representing ECE, as well as the Departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Computer Science and Engineering.

The program is also expanding its reach beyond the undergraduate population at UC San Diego through strategic partnerships and outreach efforts that target students ranging from elementary school to community college. In three years, the Project in a Box team has brought their model of education to roughly 2,000 students, teachers and parents. Student organizers hope to expand Project in a Box to local public libraries and more schools in the near future.

participants in Project in a Box

Project in a Box is a way to introduce young children to engineering through a fun, interactive experience with their parents, friends and classmates.

“Watching how kids' eyes light up when something clicks or when they solve a problem together is amazing,” said Phuong Truong, a UC San Diego Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering students who has been part of Project in a Box since its beginning. “Our program gives students the confidence to pursue careers in science, math and engineering.”

Recently, a series of Project in a Box workshops were offered to UC San Diego faculty, staff and alumni as a way to introduce young children to engineering through a fun, interactive experience with their parents. CBS Innovate 8 was there to capture some of the fun.

For more information, visit the Project in a Box website.