VCU Engineering Teams Up with National Pediatric Cancer Foundation to 'Make It Real' for a Young Inventor

Lionel Brookins and Evan Washo
Electrical engineering major Lionel Brookins and future inventor Evan Washo use magnetism and current to create opposing fields that can power a motor.

By Rebecca E. Jones

VCU’s School of Engineering recently opened its laboratories to a younger-than-usual engineer:  11-year-old aspiring inventor Evan Washo. The school organized his Day of Engineering in partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU and the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation (NPCF).

NPCF initially called VCU to request a mentor for Washo for Fashion Funds the Cure, in which children battling cancer walk the runway dressed as what they want to be when they grow up.

“We were just looking for a fashion show mentor for Evan,” said NCPF volunteer Elizabeth Hutchins, who is an alumna of the VCU schools of Allied Health Professions and Education. “The School of Engineering came up with the idea of also creating a day of engineering for him. In three days, they had a whole program tailored to Evan.”

Afroditi V. Filippas, Ph.D., associate dean for undergraduate studies and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE); Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., professor and chair in ECE and Gary Tepper, Ph.D., professor and chair in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering (MNE), organized Washo’s make-it-real experience.

It featured VCU’s MNE Innovation Lab, ECE Innovation Garage, cleanroom and medical device design and prototyping lab. Washo got to try his hand at 3D printing, electronics fabrication, flight simulations and other high-tech operations alongside engineering faculty and students.

“I always knew I’d start college early,” he said with a smile.

Washo started in the Innovation Lab. The state-of-the-art additive manufacturing suite facilitates design, fabrication, prototyping and testing with an array of tools including 30 desktop 3D printers.

“Are you here for fun? Excitement? Hard work? Then you’re in the right place,” said Charles Cartin, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering and director of the lab. Cartin and Washo soon discovered they share a passion for cars. A couple of hours later, Washo exited the lab with two 3D-printed Lamborghinis. They will be right at home in his car-themed bedroom.  

Washo moved on to the ECE Innovation Garage, a makerspace for circuit design and development. Electrical engineering majors Roxanna Jassawalla and Lionel Brookins mentored him through an experiment showing how magnetism and current create opposing fields that can power a motor. Then, on to the cleanroom.

Washo said he knew about cleanrooms in factories but had never seen one. He was excited to suit up and get inside. “You put on booties and a thing that’s like a giant onesie, a hairnet, glasses and gloves,” he said. Using a spinner and liquid silicon, he made a silicon wafer with his name on it. “The one I made is a larger model of the kind of chip that goes into phones,” he said. “You repeat the process 400 times to make a real one,” he added.

At the end of the day, there was still more to do, so he came back for a second afternoon. He conducted flight simulations — a process he said was “a little bit similar to video games but much more challenging.” Washo, a drummer, also experimented with a musical instrument that requires no physical contact: the Theremin. He learned how to generate sounds of varying pitches and intensities by moving his hands between the Theremin’s distance sensors.

He finished the day helping two Dean’s Early Research Initiative (DERI) students put the finishing touches on an autonomous submarine.

Washo said his experience at VCU helped him better understand how to develop his own invention ideas, which include an air-conditioned football helmet and a water-dispensing mouth guard. He also said he has a new sense of what “engineering” means.

“I know now that engineering isn’t only inventing, but also designing,” he said. “And I didn’t know there was so much making things involved in the process. That was really cool.”