Sid Mani: Engineering Prodigy

“You don’t have to be extraordinarily motivated or driven, you just have to like something.”

March 2016

Summary

Sid Mani is a rising senior at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View who is beyond obsessed with electrical engineering. But unlike most high school students, he explores his passion with real, hands-on, DIY (do it yourself) projects. Here are some gizmos he has been working on:

  • Tesla Coil
    • A 500,000 volt lightning generator (that plays music!)
    • Unfortunately is no longer with us today after playing “Secrets,” by OneRepublic too loud
  • Go-kart
  • 2 quadcopters
  • Various other microcontroller projects.

Interview

Q: How did you get started with electrical engineering?

A: I was first exposed to engineering in elementary school. In 5th grade, I built a wooden engineless go-kart that I took down hills. It was essentially a sled with wheels that I turned with a string.

As for electronics, I started experimenting in the summer before 6th grade. One day, I watched a Youtube video of somebody building a quadcopter, and I decided to build my own! I had a few gift cards saved up from previous birthdays, and traded those to my parents for cash, which I then spent on my first tools and parts. When I started putting the quadcopter together for the first time, the battery short-circuited and started emitting smoke. It came seconds away from catching fire, but luckily, I quickly unplugged it. Unfortunately, that marked a disappointing end to my first electronics project. Despite the setback, I rebuilt it through 6th grade and 7th grade, and finally got it in the air by 8th grade.

Q: What kind of setbacks have you faced in your time working on these projects?

A: Everything I have built has caught fire at least once, so my philosophy is: learn from your mistakes and don’t make them again (they tend to be pretty expensive). I’ve burned out two motors already, both of which were $150 each…

There’s one story I remember particularly well. One day, I was driving my go-kart on sand (bad idea), and the motor began to overheat. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any fans to cool it down. The air started smelling like burning plastic, and black smoke began coming out of the back. I got off and decided to walk it back home, but as I started doing so, the motor jammed, so I had to lift the wheels off the ground for the entire walk back. I ordered a replacement motor soon after, but just when I thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, I realized the drive gear was superglued to the old motor’s shaft. I had to cut through solid steel using a hacksaw to separate the gear from the motor. And that’s the reason I have fans today!

Q: What is your most memorable experience so far in your engineering journey?

A: One time, I was cruising on my go-kart at about 25 mph. All of a sudden, the throttle wire that allows me to control the speed setting popped out, and the vehicle all of a sudden sped up to 35 mph. It gets worse: I had no brakes and was heading down a dead-end street. Because the throttle had failed, I had no way to stop the motor. I frantically unplugged the batteries and jammed my foot on the ground to use friction as a brake. It was a miracle that it worked; I stopped about 2 or 3 feet from the fence at the end of the road. The first thing I did when I went home was start building brakes—for some reason I didn’t think I needed them at first...

Q: What advice would you give to high schoolers who are starting a project in general or in the same field?

  • If you’re interested in something, just start learning about it. Find out how others pursued it, and follow their example!
  • Don’t be discouraged if it blows up. It happens to everyone.
  • Don’t take shortcuts. Take the time to learn and understand what you’re doing and learning, rather than blindly following a tutorial. When your project breaks, you’ll need to know why it broke and how to fix it.

Q: How do you believe your projects diverge from what you are learning in high school?

A: Through my projects, I’ve learned a lot about my real strengths and weaknesses. School doesn’t always do a great job of helping you in that area, because kids aren’t getting enough hands-on experience in their classes. This inhibits potential growth because they don’t learn what they’re capable of, especially if their strengths lie outside of the classroom. Without chances to explore all of their interests, they miss out on opportunities to discover what they might want to pursue in the future.

Q: What about high school do you think needs to change?

A: There’s this stereotype in high school that if you don’t have good grades, then you’re incompetent or dumb. I believe that it is during the high school years when you learn the most about yourself, and if you assume you’re incompetent during this period, then you’re going to believe that for the rest of your life. That’s going to hurt you immensely, because if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will. People need to recognize that grades aren’t the be-all end-all of what you want to do. The key is actually passion.

Q: Do you think more high school students should also turn their focus towards opportunities outside of school?

A: Even though we’re in school, we actually have quite a lot of free time (that is, if we don’t procrastinate). Our expenses are paid for, and we have few real day to day responsibilities. Why not turn our time towards learning something new? Many kids today are discouraged by the traditional high school education, and end up wrongly assuming that they aren’t interested in learning, or that they aren’t good at it. When they become discouraged, they aren’t motivated to go out and independently discover the types of learning that they ARE interested in. However, I believe that establishing a greater emphasis as a community on opportunities outside of school would solve that problem.


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Got more questions or seeking advice? Contact Sid!