Engineering the Future

Growing up in a digital world, today’s kids learn how to use a smartphone as quickly as they master the alphabet. It should come as no surprise that many of these millennials hope to turn a love of technology into a rewarding career. A recent high school graduate profiles two enterprising young tech engineers on that track, putting their passion into practice.

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    Jillian James

jillianmain2 Photographed by Lauren Pressey


When I met with 17-year-old Fiona McKellar of Palos Verdes at a local Starbucks to talk about her interest in engineering, she was still wearing the uniform she wore to work at The Aerospace Corporation earlier that day. The white polo shirt reveals how slight her frame is, but beyond her petite stature she has an ingenious mind of great size.

As she talks, Fiona is all bright smiles and fiddling hands. Her voice trails off in tangents and occasionally backtracks to make a correction, but the way it seems to dart about reveals much about her. She has so many interests—so much to share that when she speaks about it all, it can seem sporadic and unformed. However, much like the electronics projects Fiona spends her time poring over, the story she tells me over coffee begins to come together.

“Before I knew anything about programming, I would just take anything I could find in my house. And if there was anything that I thought could be made more efficient, I would make it so.”

jillian2 SAILING INTO THE FUTURE: Fiona McKellar on the SEAL board she created.

For engineers young and old, the common story amongst them is that their interest in their field started from a love of putting things together. Fiona is no different.

“Before I knew anything about programming,” she says, “I would just take anything I could find in my house. And if there was anything that I thought could be made more efficient, I would make it so.”

She goes into more detail about one of her earlier devices. Made of paperclips and string, the contraption she still uses today allows her to turn off and on her room’s lights from her bed—a solution that arose out of laziness, Fiona points out, but is useful nonetheless.

Since then Fiona’s projects have gradually gotten more complex. On her Tumblr blog, Fionadoesthings, she keeps her followers updated on all her innovative creations. Recently she learned to code with infrared so her light switch contraption is now remote-controlled.

Another interesting blog post from the engineer extraordinaire has pictures of the “SEAL board” she made, showing her putting it together and even taking the device for a spin. She was kind enough to share how she got the idea to make it in the first place.

“So I sail. I’ve sailed all my life, and one day I was really annoyed that I couldn’t sail at the moment because no one could take me to the ocean or provide me with a boat. So I just made one myself.”

jillian3 MR. ROBOT: Maxwell Westreich, an enterprising robotics enthusiast.

She explains that she was inspired by the Navy Seals three theatres of operations—sea, air and land—when she named her invention the SEAL board. “My board can be sailed on the sea or land, and it uses air to move,” says Fiona. “Basically it’s a sailboat that can be sailed right off the beach and into water if you wanted to.”

While Fiona’s board shows the extent of her creativity very plainly, it wasn’t until she started to learn computer programming that a new realm of creative possibilities opened up for her.

“At the beginning of high school I found this website called Scratch. It’s basically coding for beginners,” she shares. “I got really into that, and then I decided to take AP computer science at my high school, Vistamar, because Scratch wasn’t enough for me. After that I decided to learn more coding languages. I know Java, Python, C and I’m learning Swift right now, which is for app development.”

Fiona is on her way to MIT in the fall, with a mission to create new projects that combine her love of code and engineering into a creation of their own.

“When I grow up I want to have my own business,” she says. “I want to sell things that I invent that help people and maybe make their lives more efficient—the kind of things that I build in my own house but on a more advanced scale.”

The first things that stick out about Maxwell Westreich, a 15-year-old student from Manhattan Beach, are his intelligence and sense of propriety. He shakes my hand upon our meeting and kindly opens the door for me.

Then he sits across from me, one foot crossed over his knee, business-style. His hands are folded in his lap. His shoulders are ramrod-straight. But he doesn’t seem nervous. In fact he immediately strikes up conversation, and soon enough his bright, full laughter is filling the room.

Maxwell tells me that, like Fiona, he first got his interest in engineering from building things as a child. But he wasn’t combining household objects to make his inventions. He got his start by making creations with everyone’s favorite building block … that little devil underfoot, the Lego.

“The first step is to see what clubs or classes are available at school. Take those classes; join those clubs. If they don’t have the club, see if you can start it.”

“I loved building Legos. We had this Lego club at elementary school that I did. But then as I went on to middle school, it became less socially acceptable to build Legos and they became too easy. It wasn’t much fun anymore, which led me to try new things. I played Minecraft for a while, which got me interested in computers. Then from there I took the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) class at my middle school. And we did a bunch of stuff—one of the most prominent being that we built VEX Robotics for a month and a half. So that got me into and invested in robotics.”

He explains that VEX Robotics is a simplified version of the robotics he does now in the FIRST Tech Challenge that his high school robotics club competes in. Today he plays a leadership role in the club as second head of engineering and head of legislation.

Members of the club work together to create robots that can accomplish various tasks at a competition that consists of “30 seconds of autonomous movement where is programed specifically to do something with predetermined variables,” Maxwell shares. “Then after those 30 seconds, there is 2½ minutes of tele-op where it’s driver-controlled. Then in the last 30 seconds is the endgame where you can score a bunch of points.”

This year the endgame was by far the hardest challenge they had. In order to complete the third round, their robot had to climb a runged ladder that rotated at changing angles. They ended up using tank treads to roll the robot up the first few rungs and a pulley arm to pull them the rest of the way up.

“I think is one of those things that has just given me an outlet. Because before this, I knew I loved building, but I didn’t have a professional—so to speak—outlet to put it out into. But now that I have, I realize how much I love this and how much I would love to do this for a living. And what I want to go to school for. I think it’s helped me immeasurably.”
When I ask Maxwell what he plans to do with robotics when he gets older, his sense of humor makes another appearance. “Have you seen the movie Terminator?” he jokes. “No, in all seriousness, I think that robots will become an essential part of culture. They already are, in a lot of cases. I should have said, ‘Ever heard of the Mars Rover?’”

When he goes to college, Maxwell wants to study either robotics or electrical engineering, and he encourages other young people to try out the tech industry as well.

“The first step is to see what clubs or classes are available at school. Take those classes; join those clubs. If they don’t have the club, see if you can start it. (That’s a big one.) Or just do it outside of school. Do some research; you can find a bunch of stuff online. There are so, so, so many sources online for learning code, learning how to build things or learning how to build computers.”

“That’s just the direction the world is moving in,” he says.