Engineering 96: Undergraduate Instructors Teach Classes on Design, Build and Test

Samantha Hilton and Jonathan Huang

UCLA Samueli
Samantha Hilton and Jonathan Huang are student instructors for the Engineering 96 class on go-karts.

Apr 5, 2022

UCLA Samueli
When third-year mechanical engineering student Jonathan Huang embarked on his career at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, he didn’t expect to see his face laser-etched on the side of a go-kart.

But that’s exactly what happened while he was a student instructor for the Engineering 96 class on go-karts this past fall.

“I definitely had to do a double take,” Huang said. “I was pretty impressed with the level of detail that the laser cutter engraved my face with. Moments like that make the class more fun and interesting to teach.”

Huang and fourth-year mechanical engineering student Samantha Hilton were undergraduate student instructors for an E96 class on go-karts, one of a collection of student-led courses that provide unique learning opportunities for both the students taking the classes and the instructors teaching them.

There are two types of Engineering 96 classes: ones led by faculty and ones led by undergraduate students. While both are hands-on and require no prerequisite classes or prior engineering experience, it is the latter that provide all students involved an unmatched opportunity to engage in peer-to-peer engineering project design and manufacture. Plus, there are no course fees charged for these two-unit classes that are designed to be a fun, engaging respite from students’ typical class schedules. Students can take as many E96 classes as they’d like, but only up to two classes and four units will count toward graduation credits.

“Sometimes students aren’t able to get a significant hands-on design experience until their senior design course,” said bioengineering professor and director of the UCLA Samueli Makerspace Jacob Schmidt, who oversees the student-led classes. “Most of their engineering classes are very theory-based. But a lot of engineering students chose engineering because they like technical design and problem solving. So, these classes are a great way for students to satisfy that need before they are seniors — even as early as the first quarter of their first year.”

For Hilton, that was exactly what made the class appealing when she took the E96 rockets class as a freshman.

“I was taking a lot of prep courses, so the class helped me remember what I was working toward and get a taste of engineering in my very first quarter,” Samatha Hilton said.

“I was taking a lot of prep courses, so the class helped me remember what I was working toward and get a taste of engineering in my very first quarter,” she said. “I hope that, as an instructor, I help bring that same energy into class and keep students excited to be engineers!”

The student instructors are chosen based on their demonstrated knowledge in a given topic — either by having done well in the class previously or from gaining skills in one of UCLA Samueli’s many engineering clubs.

In preparation for teaching their courses, soon-to-be student instructors must first take a two-unit seminar, Engineering 192. In the preparatory class, Schmidt guides students through developing their curriculums as well as their teaching and public-speaking skills.

There are a number of benefits to the student-led classes, according to Schmidt. Up to 10 different E96 classes are offered per quarter, allowing student instructors to design and adapt their courses, ensuring the content will be of interest to the students taking the classes. The courses also provide a unique opportunity for student instructors to hone their leadership and teaching skills. The peer-to-peer interactions encourage both the students and the student instructors to connect with the material and one another more efficiently since they are all about the same age.

“I love seeing students grow and become passionate about their projects,” said Caedmon Gouldthorpe, a third-year mechanical engineering student who co-leads the rocket class. “This excitement takes each project to the next level and helps create an environment of innovation and creativity.”

“The Engineering Makerspace had the equipment and instructional space to make the classes happen,” Jacob Schmidt said.

UCLA first began to offer the E96 classes in fall of 2018 after the debut of the Engineering Makerspace. The classes are modeled after Tech Camp, a summer program for high school students led by experienced UCLA undergraduate students.

“The Engineering Makerspace had the equipment and instructional space to make the classes happen,” Schmidt said. “That fall, we had a go-karts class and a rocketry class, both of which were based on introductory classes taught by engineering clubs and their members.”

As the E96 course expands, the topics are also evolving with emerging techs added constantly. Around 20 students and two to three student instructors are in each of the 10 classes. Course options include everything from go-karts and rockets to the science of coffee, 3D pharmaceuticals and electrocardiograms.

Even Schmidt finds himself discovering new ways of approaching different problems.

“Many of the classes have design goals that I have a good idea about how I’d solve,” he said. “Every time these courses are offered, I see student designs that are not just better than what I had in mind but also significantly different.”

This is the first year for an E96 class on remote control planes, led by students who are in the school’s Design, Build, Fly club, including Ian Pascual, a third-year aerospace engineering student.

“By far the most rewarding part of teaching an E96 is how much I personally learn about the subject that I teach,” Pascual said. “There are always so many things to explore and consider that I never would have even thought about if I weren’t a tutor. It truly is one of the classes that has taught me the most, which is interesting because I’m not even taking the class.”

Another new class offered this year is combat robotics, which is co-led by fourth-year mechanical engineering student Erin Hall, who knew she wanted to be an E96 instructor after taking an E96 class during her first year.

Formulating a new class from scratch was a challenge, she said, but one that ended up being very rewarding.

“As first-time instructors of a brand-new course, we faced a lot of challenges, including tracking down parts and troubleshooting issues with eight unique robots,” Hall said. “It was great to see how each design progressed from concept to sketch to assembled robot. Interacting with everyone in-person was also amazing; it definitely made all the extra office hours and last-minute troubleshooting worthwhile.”

Sara Hubbard contributed to this story.