UCSD outreach program blends fashion, engineering

Saura Naderi and Adan Anderson. Photos by Alex Matthews

Chris Palmer


About two dozen girls competed in last Wednesday’s Opening Day hat contest at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, wearing fancy hats they built in the engineering workshops at the University of California, San Diego.

The girls made race-inspired hats driven by gears and electronics for the competition as part of a six-week, hands-on engineering program held at the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

“The whole experience is designed to expose the girls to what an engineer does, in a fun and engaging way,” said Saura Naderi, the Director of Calit2’s MyLab @ Variability Expedition.

Ranging in age from 7 to 16, the girls participated in the Girl’s Hat Day program, which was funded by a $15,000 grant from ViaSat, a Carlsbad company building satellite and other digital communications products.

This year, a record 46,588 race fans attended Opening Day at Del Mar. Spectators have sported creative, glamorous hats since the race’s first Opening Day in 1937, and the more fashion-minded spectators participate in the “One and Only Truly Fabulous Hats Contest.” The Girl’s Hat Day girls, wearing matching blue dresses, entered their hats in the ‘Funniest or Most Outrageous’ category.

Naderi, a UCSD engineering physics graduate who has lived in Del Mar with her family since she was five, said she’s “always appreciated the Del Mar horse races and I’ve always enjoyed the hats on Opening Day.”

“The hats there are ridiculously amazing.”

Some of the girls’ hat designs included: a strip of light emitting diodes (LEDs) and an LCD screen that displayed predetermined text messages by pressing a matrix of buttons on the hat;

moving figurines that told the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears; a hat that opens up revealing a stage and a dancing horse; a menagerie of flora and fauna that spring into life when activated by shining a light at an optical sensor.

A large number of the hats incorporated not only mechanical racing horses, but also dancing bunnies, butterflies and ladybugs. Several of the hats sang, thanks to miniature soundcards repurposed from drugstore greeting cards. LEDs are also a popular accoutrement on many of the hats.

“When we got the LEDs working, the girls’ faces glowed as brightly as the LEDs,” said project mentor and Qualcomm mechanical engineer Malati Patil.

Added Naderi: “The girls are really learning what goes into making something, from all of the parts and tools that are needed to the mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science skills required to design and build stuff.”

Naderi is supported primarily by Variability Expedition, a $10 million project directed by Calit2 Associate Director Rajesh Gupta and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Naderi collaborated with Town and Country Village Learning Center to recruit many of the girls for the program, which taught them the basics of electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering. The program participants were mentored by a dozen mostly female engineers from UCSD, ViaSat, Qualcomm and SPAWAR.