Getting Started in Engineering with Blue Stamp (Part 1)

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Today on “College Admissions Real Talk” we had a great conversation about how to get started with an engineering project with Jessie Contour. You can start with just $15, an internet connection, and a dream! Listen to learn more.


VO: Welcome to College Admissions Real Talk with Dr. Aviva Legatt. A podcast for students seeking to get admitted to top tier colleges. Each episode will feature an important tip for your college admission success delivered with candor and love. If you’ve ever wanted to take a peek inside the mind of a college admissions officer, this is your chance. Have a question? Text Dr. Legatt at (610) 222-5762.  So, what’s your dream school?

AL: I have my special guest today, Jessie Contour from Blue Stamp Engineering. Uh, welcome Jessie.

JC: Hi, so happy to be here!

AL: Yeah I’m so glad to have you! Um, and the reason why I invited Jessie to talk with you all today, is because I have so many students who want to study engineering; they’re interested in engineering and engineering if you haven’t done it, in my mind as a non-engineering person, it’s such a black box. There’s so many different facets and fields, and so I brought Jessie on to talk a little bit about engineering, and demystify some of the… the different interests and pathways that you can take.
So before we dive into that, I guess you can tell me a little bit about yourself, and tell… tell the audience who you are and what you do.

JC: Yeah sure, so I actually related to what you just mentioned about engineering. I want to rewind a little bit to when I started school. I actually grew up… My parents are both engineers and growing up I was like, “No thanks!” You know, I was like not really interested in that.

Um, my dad worked on cell phone technology, which I thought was kind of cool, because I wanted a cell phone. But I wasn’t really interested in being an engineer myself. It just seemed a little boring to me, so I went into school and actually studied 3D animation.

And I worked in the game industry for a while. And the thing that I found the most interesting as an animator, was bringing life and the ability to like move and making things kind of like become dynamic and real in the 3D space.

And um, when I went back to school, I went into a program where part of the lessonswere using hardware and code and like motors, and things like that to actually kind of bring things to life outside the screen. and I was so excited, and I remember very specifically the one day, where I was kind of talking to my parents about what I was doing in this new program, and my dad was like, “that’s a lot of stuff that I do at work.”

You know, and he was really… he gave me all of his old little breadboards for making circuits and… It was like, so cool to talk with him and see how, um, we both approached this field of engineering from just completely different directions and we’ve kind of overlapped in, in the tools that we use every day.
And um, since I went to school in that area, um, I was, you know, building lots of projects. And I work a lot in education. I love teaching. And so, after a few years doing things like, um… building exhibitions at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I started working with Blue Stamp, where I now, um, love to spend every summer introducing students to the field of engineering through projects. So that’s kind of what I’m up to these days.

AL: That’s so cool! And I really appreciate hearing about your story and sort of, you know… that realization about how engineering can work differently depending on what… what media you’re working on. it’s kind of a conceptual way of thinking about things, but you can apply to different areas. Um, and I think project work is so helpful and important for high school kids, because it helps you as a high school student to develop your interests, to build skills.

So I’d love to hear, er, from your perspective, you know, let’s say like their dad isn’t an engineer they don’t have something flying around at home. like… what are some things that people can keep in mind when exploring their interests in engineering?

JC: Yeah, I think that’s a great question, because engineering, like you said, it’s a little bit of a black box and if you have no idea where to start it can be really intimidating. 

So one thing that I would recommend that students do is take a look at the things in the world around them that are inspiring. When I interview students to come into Blue Stamp a lot of times they say that they’re interested in self-driving cars, or maybe like space travel, um, or maybe they’re interested in the internet of things you know kind of like the smart objects that they find around their homes, like google homes or things like that. And if you find these things, that you’re just curious about in the world, oftentimes there’s a project that you can tackle that will expose you to more about how these things work and you might think like, “well if I don’t know how to build a self-driving car how would I even start a project?”
But there’s so so so many resources online these days like there’s videos on YouTube there’s cool websites like Instructables that really walk you through, like step by step, but it can be overwhelming because there’s so many things you could build. But do you find that one thing that you’re really curious about and you’re like, “Oh wow, this is this thing I saw that’s in the world, like how I want to build a self-driving car.” 

Well, that’s actually one of like the first projects that a Blue Stamp student might try to tackle. And you know, we kind of work through projects like that and a self-driving car is totally something that you could build. You know, it’s… it’s maybe it’s slightly less complicated than the ones that like Tesla are building, but it’s kind of tackling the same concepts. And you can build up to maybe a more complex version, but it’s a great place to start.

AL: Wow, that sounds really neat! I’d love to build a self-driving car. 

JC: You could do it!

AL: I gotta check out those sites. That sounds really fun, something to make a routine hobby or something.
So I’m really curious, when you’re thinking about your project and you know where to start… So maybe I’m interested in self-driving cars, or I’m interested in energy conservation or something like that. What are things to keep in mind? How can I focus my energy? Where would I start? 

JC: So whenever I’m researching a brand new project and I’m trying to figure out the best way to tackle it, I actually kind of approach it the same way that when I’m trying to find a new recipe I’d like to make for dinner, I don’t know about you, but when I look for recipes, I look up like 50 different versions of the same recipe and then i kind of compare them. Because if I’ve never made it before, I don’t know if the one that I found is the right one, or if it’ll be yummy, or you know, whatever. Um so if I was to make a self-driving car, I would probably go to a site like Instructables, and then I would look up, you know, “self-driving car” and kind of see what are the first if, you, sort by like popular or something. Like that you can see what are the most commonly used tutorials. And then you can start comparing them.

You’ll probably see something similar like maybe they all use the same micro controller, called an arduino. You’re like, “okay, well it sounds like I should use an arduino for this because 80 of them agree that arduinos are the way to go.” And then you might look at the sensors that are being used and, you know, there’s a few different sensors that you can tackle, but I would say maybe the most common one would be one that’s like… It’s an ultrasonic sensor that senses distance so you can detect if something is close to you or not, and you could say okay well it looks like the ones that have, it’s like beginner level.

You know, the most commonly used parts and you can start to get a sense of like, “okay, this is how most people are tackling that.” And you can kind of work your way through to see, you know, what would be the best way to do it. So I… That’s, I think, how I would tackle it, is like look up as many things as you can, and then compare them, and kind of see where you land.

Another thing I would recommend, for like beginners, would say look for ones that have like the least amount of parts. Because people get really excited about projects. They want to add all this stuff and once you are comfortable with what you’re doing, you can start getting more complex. But like if you find ones that have, like, three or four things to work with, you know, you can kind of jump in like dip your toes in first, before you dive first. What’s really neat are there certain parts that are common to many types of engineering projects. There’s a lot of different types of micro controllers that you can use.

So um, one thing that’s really cool these days is there’s this one called an arduino, that I mentioned, and arduinos are basically micro controllers that make it easy for you to prototype. So they have these pins that are built in, that are super easy to just plug little wires into and get stuff working right away. You don’t have to learn how to do anything crazy like soldering. which is uh, if you don’t know what soldering is, that’s basically just gluing two metal things together with metal glue, so that electricity can flow through them. But it requires me some special tools, so arduino is really easy. You can just plug a wire right into this little hole right on top and do some basic coding and you can get stuff working like really fast. It’s meant for, like, rapid prototyping and so there’s this thing and 

it’s very very accessible. I think you can buy them for like $15 and you could really make, like, amazing stuff with them.
So there’s like this tiny little piece of tech that really kind of opens the world to project building. And yeah, that’s probably one of the most common things that’s used these days for beginners.

AL: That’s so exciting, that you know, this technology is so accessible and it’s relatively affordable.


JC: Yeah, yeah fifteen dollars. Like yeah. 

AL: That’s yeah, that’s not too bad. So what about a code? You mentioned coding. Um and so, the coding, (I’m you know, I’m speaking as like a very beginner in engineering,) so does the coding connect   to this arduino part, or is this like something that you would do like a separate coding project? 


JC: Yeah so the way the arduino works is there’s a hardware aspect and a software aspect. So there’s the pins, where you plug wires into, so you would connect things like motors, or sensors, or LEDs, so you can make your circuits. And then, when you plug it into your computer, just via the USP port, you can open up the arduino software. It’s called an IDE. That’s like the development environment. And um, you type code into there and then you could send the code to your arduino and it will execute the code that you wrote.
And if you… I know that coding can… Coding, it’s like all of this stuff can be really intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but coding is something where I think there’s different levels, that you can engage with. Code, when you start off with… Um, code can just purely be this functional thing. Where it’s like, it has a job to do and someone else has probably already written that code. So if you’re starting with a beginner project, like a self-driving car, you can likely find some example code that someone else has written. That’s really all you would need to do is learn how to read through it and understand what it is doing.

So I think this idea of, um, being able to like understand and parse through the code and saying like, “okay this line is doing this. This line is doing this. I might not have known how to write that myself, but if I look at it, now I can kind of understand what’s happening.” 

That’s a really important first step to getting into coding. And you’ll find, if you look through, you know, oftentimes code it’s written for people to understand. So if you take a minute and kind of just go slow you’ll be able to get the idea of what’s happening. You know there might be some 

details that kind of are hard to understand at first but like you can get the gist of it. Um, so you can say, “okay this little chunk it looks like it’s making my motors go forwards. This chunk it looks like it has something to do with the sensor kind of looking out in front of it and detecting distance.” You know so you can kind of get the idea once you can start to get comfortable just with parsing through code. That’s when you can start to get creative. Maybe adding in your own lines of code, like combining two pieces of code together so that you can have two things, you know, that you like happening at the same time.

Reading through code and understanding it is something that you can do right away because there’s so much example code just out in the world that you can just find that makes it easy for you to get started.

VO: College Admissions Real Talk is hosted by Dr. Aviva Legatt, edited by Stephanie Carlin and produced by Incontrera Consulting. I’m Caroline Stokes and this has been your daily boost of College Admissions Insight.
Have a question? Text Doctor Legatt at (610) 222-5762. For more information on Dr. Legatt and Ivy Insight, visit www.ivyinsight.com and you can pick up Dr. Legatt’s book Get Real and Get In at major retail outlets across the world. Insight Out.