Inspiring a New Generation of Female Scientists and Engineers

Members of the MGC rowing team on the Yarra River

A number of Invetech’s female design and engineering staff have been working with students at the Melbourne Girls’ College – mentoring and inspiring young women to consider a career in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Melbourne Girls’ College (MGC) has a rich history of competitive rowing, due in no small part to its enviable location on the iconic Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia. When students aren’t training on the water, they can spend countless hours on stationary indoor rowing machines known as “ergos.” The wasted energy of stationary training got some of the students thinking – was there a way they could make use of this expended energy (sweat equity) to generate clean electricity?

The idea of combining sustainability goals and rowing machines was central to MGC’s winning entry for the Zayed Future Energy Prize. This annual international award celebrates achievements in the fields of renewable energy and sustainability. A key component of the college’s Zayed submission was the conversion of the ergo rowing machines into electricity generation devices. Winning the prize enabled MGC to launch a renewable energy education center to integrate the study of renewable energy within the school curriculum.

Collaborating with Invetech to turn a concept into reality

MGC students
MGC students plan the project with Invetech

MGC sustainability coordinator Andrew Vance and Invetech program manager Geoff Ball had an existing connection through their sustainability interests. This connection resulted in the E-ergo project collaboration between MGC and Invetech.

A number of Invetech’s female design and engineering staff, including Maggie Phoeng (Industrial Designer), Lauren O’Connor (Senior Software Consultant), Ashleigh Williams (Mechatronics Engineer) and Ariba Siddiqi (intern), volunteered to act as mentors to the MGC students. Together, they helped guide the students through the rowing machine conversion process – taking it from initial concept creation through to implementation.

Getting started

Woman on Stationary Row
Stationary ergo rowing trainers to be adapted by the project

While newer models of ergo rowing trainers employ electrical resistance, MGC was able to modify the older, mechanical resistance models to incorporate a motor (similar to a bicycle hub motor) that would provide the requisite training resistance while simultaneously charging large batteries.

In commencing the project, Maggie Phoeng demonstrated how creativity is a key aspect of engineering projects by showing students how they could apply various idea generation and problem-solving techniques to their project.

The students also had the opportunity to work alongside Invetech employees in a series of workshops at our Melbourne offices. Together they conducted a range of tests to better understand the differences between electrical and mechanical resistance–a crucial concept in ensuring the converted trainers maintained the same “feel” regardless of the additional function it was performing.

Woman on Stationary Row 2
Invetech’s Ashleigh Williams working with the students to determine ideal motor specifications

Invetech intern Ariba Siddiqi was also able to offer the students insights from someone entering the workforce fresh out of university and how they should feel strong in the commitment from day one.

Generating clean electricity from sweat equity

Following a successful trial phase where adapted DC motors were used to charge a bank of batteries, Invetech and the students developed an electronic interface that would enable the generated power to be supplied directly into the grid at the school. Now when students are training for competition they are also supplementing the electricity generated by the school’s substantial solar panel system.

Women on Bench
MGC students Alysha, Thirumagal and Ingrid provide feedback to Invetech on their project learnings

The final, permanent installation of the E-ergos is planned for later this year. Experiments to date suggest that a rower can produce between 50 and 60 watts—enough to charge a laptop, power a single halogen downlight, or four compact fluorescent lamps. While this is no substitute for industrial systems, it is hoped the power generated will eventually be used to power a moonlight cinema evening at the school.

Inspiring careers in STEM through real world applications

By stepping outside the classroom, MGC students have been able to apply theory to a real-world application through one of their major interests, the sport of competitive rowing.

Not only has this project provided a practical opportunity for college students to explore the mechanics of electrical power and energy consumption, it has also offered them some insight into what a career in a STEM discipline might look like.

Hopefully the opportunity to work closely with Invetech engineers, ask questions and discuss their aspirations with women who have successfully pursued a career in the STEM disciplines, will inspire them to also consider a future career in STEM.