Engineering camp powers girls’ imaginations

| July 27, 2012

In front of Guion, two high school girls work feverishly on a rusty pink bicycle. They’ve taken the rubber tire off the back wheel and are getting ready to attach a PVC pipe.

Akila Logan, 16, from Atlanta, works on her drawing machine.

Clearly, no one’s going to ride the bike anymore. Instead, it’s being repurposed as a “sunflower seeder,” explain 16-year-old Carter Kyle from Austin, Texas, and Hanna Frazier, 17, from Utah.

“We came up with it ourselves,” they say as if it’s no big deal.

The project is part of a hands-on engineering camp for girls interested in “Exploring Engineering Design” at Sweet Briar College. This year, the weeklong program brought in 22 students from Virginia, New Hampshire, Utah, Texas, Georgia and Florida. For the past week, they’ve all been living on campus with their college mentors.

Designed to fit every experience level, the course encourages students to explore engineering through creative projects in a collaborative environment.

“We try to make the program open-ended, but approachable,” says Hank Yochum, director of the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program at Sweet Briar.

He didn’t want the projects to seem too daunting to anyone, Yochum adds. “Everybody can do it.”

But it’s not easy to come up with a project anyone can do, “especially when you want it to be interesting at the same time,” he says.

The seed de-sheller is an element commonly used in design projects because of its value to developing countries, he explains. Aside from fostering creativity, it also teaches students how engineers are making a difference in the world.

“The idea is to provide a business opportunity for poor areas,” he adds. And because these areas may not have access to electricity or batteries, the de-sheller has to be constructed without a motor — that’s where the bicycle comes in handy.

The students’ second project is a drawing machine. While each team uses slightly different materials, the basics are the same: a pen is attached to wooden arms that are moved by motors; the pen then draws circles or figure eights on a piece of paper.

“You don’t want to tell them exactly what to do,” Yochum explains. “It’s important for them to get that sense of ownership.”


Judging from the excited hustling and bustling in- and outside of the engineering classroom, Yochum’s philosophy is working. Drills, saws, screws and 2-by-4s litter the floor and tables. Amidst the chaos, students with safety glasses huddle around their projects trying to make them work. Everyone is doing something.

Kate Parry, a 16-year-old from Alexandria, is here for the first time. She wasn’t really interested in engineering before, but the program has changed her mind.

“After this camp, I’m like, wow, this is pretty cool,” Parry says, adding that she’ll probably major in engineering. In part, her decision was influenced when she talked to Sweet Briar engineering alumnae, who told students about their careers.

“You’re wanted everywhere,” Parry says.

North Carolina native Leah Spinner, 16, agrees.

“It’s nice to know you have somewhere to go after college,” she says.

Even though she plans on becoming a doctor, it’s her second time exploring engineering at Sweet Briar. Last year, she participated in the weekend course that takes place in March.

Sweet Briar College is one of only two women’s colleges in the U.S. to offer an accredited engineering degree. Every year, the College reaches out to high school students (and for the first time this year, middle school girls) through its spring and summer camps.

“Sweet Briar is really committed to increasing the number of women pursuing engineering,” said Yochum when speaking with CBS affiliate WDBJ 7 on Thursday.

Connecting prospective engineering students with successful women engineers is an important part of the summer program. But it doesn’t always have to be a question-and-answer session.

On Wednesday, engineering campers and alumnae worked on a one-hour design project that involved using bamboo found on campus and a variety of recyclable materials. They idea was to imagine that they lived in the Philippines and had nothing but bamboo and whatever they could find in a dumpster to create something they could sell.

“How can you turn these materials into something that has value?” Yochum said, adding that “real” engineers often deal with similar constraints — whether it’s a limited budget or specific building regulations.

Inspired by the challenge, students came up with a variety of items. One team made flip-flops using bamboo and duct tape, others made a kite, a marionette, a picture frame, a toy robot, and bracelets from bottle labels that they displayed on a stand made of bamboo and beer cans.

“It looked like there was a crazy party going on,” Yochum says, laughing.

And in a way, there was. In addition to earning college credit and confidence in their skills, participants discovered that engineering isn’t just a smart career choice: it’s also a lot of fun.


Contact: Janika Carey


Category: Serving an Expanded Student Body, Uncategorized