Engineering camp for high school girls fires imaginations, future plans and quite a few circuits

July 29, 2016 | Janika Carey
Students from around the country had a blast at Sweet Briar’s annual Explore Engineering camp.

Students from around the country had a blast at Sweet Briar’s annual Explore Engineering camp.

What can you do with a stack of wooden planks, some string, tape and a handful of beads? How about make an abacus?

That’s what Explore Engineering participants were working on two days into this year’s summer camp at Sweet Briar. The weeklong collaborative design course, sponsored by AREVA and hosted by the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, is Sweet Briar’s flagship science camp for high school students. Many of them travel to campus from around the country and some, like Mackenzie Crary ’18 of Gofftown, N.H., end up enrolling at Sweet Briar.

“The past years have been amazing,” says the rising junior, who is helping with the camp this week. She especially appreciates the small classes and close connection with professors at Sweet Briar — one of only two women’s colleges in the country with an ABET-accredited engineering degree.

Mackenzie Crary ’18 as a high school participant in the 2012 Explore Engineering course

Mackenzie Crary ’18 (left) participated in the 2012 Explore Engineering course.

“If I don’t go to class, I get a text from my teacher saying, ‘What’s going on, are you sick?’ That’s not something I think I would have gotten [elsewhere].”

In Guion’s engineering lab, sawdust dances in the air as the sound of drills and saws emerges from the woodshop. There are 17 girls in heavy aprons and safety goggles. Some are absorbed in measuring their three-by-ones with yellow tape to pinpoint exactly where the holes should go. Others are still cutting them, while a handful has lined up to start drilling.

“How is the confidence level?” assistant professor Bethany Brinkman asks one of her students. Brinkman, who is returning to teach in Sweet Briar’s engineering department this fall, watches quietly as the student drills her first hole, then shows another how to hold the drill to make sure holes are straight.

Brinkman explains that the abacus is a practice project — a simplified version of the gadget first-years in Sweet Briar’s engineering program build.

“This project gets students comfortable working with different shop tools, and using different measuring techniques,” she says.

Those tools and techniques come in handy later in the week, when participants tackle increasingly tricky engineering problems, including the main project: designing and constructing a wearable device.

On Monday, students worked on making concrete cylinders using sustainable materials, while Tuesday morning was dedicated to learning how to build microcontrollers using Arduino. The controllers are part of the main project, says Brinkman.

The Arduino lab introduced Explore Engineering participants to computer programming.

Explore Engineering participants learn computer programming in Arduino lab.

“Students are combining elements of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and Arduino programming to create a device that receives an input — such as temperature or proximity — processes it with the Arduino, and returns an output — such as lights or music,” she explains. “An example might be a backpack that starts beeping if your water bottle starts leaking. Lots of circuits and programming lessons went into this!”

Jabreshia “Bre” Rogers, of Mill Creek High School in Atlanta, and Jearice Black, of St. Catherine’s in Richmond, make alarm clock pajamas using circuits for a buzzer and vibrating device. Katherine Bowles, of Maret School in Washington, D.C., and her partner work on a self-zipping jacket triggered by a temperature sensor.

Bowles’ grandmother, Kay Diane Bowles, is a 1957 Sweet Briar alumna, but Bowles isn’t sure yet where she wants to go to college, or what to study exactly. Engineering, she says, is “a pretty new thing” for her. An avid athlete and art lover, she’s gone from wanting to be a doctor to considering business to perhaps going into engineering. Sweet Briar’s summer engineering camp offered a way to get her feet wet, she says.

“[My mother and I] thought this would be a great environment to explore engineering. My engineering club at school is all guys.”

While she enjoys connecting with other girls interested in engineering, being the only one has never bothered her, she adds.

“[The guys] might be more into the coding, whereas I’ll be more into the hands-on stuff. I think everybody has a different skill set and brings something different to the table.”

Teamwork is an important aspect of Explore Engineering.

Teamwork is an important aspect of Explore Engineering.

That’s exactly why women engineers — and engineering programs at women’s colleges — are so important, says Wyllie program director Hank Yochum:

“There need to be more diverse groups of people who do engineering.”

Bowles is getting plenty of hands-on experience, but Explore Engineering students also learn from professionals in the field.

After touring a training facility at AREVA, an international nuclear energy firm in Lynchburg, on Wednesday, the students shopped at Goodwill for clothing and accessories to be used in their main projects.

An alumnae panel that evening introduced them to the various careers available to engineering graduates. MaryAnne Haslow-Hall ’11, Sarah Jennings Harper ’11, Lindsay Davis ’13 and Grace Caskey ’14 spoke about their experiences a few years into the job, and what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field.

Caskey is an engineer at BW Container Systems/FleetwoodGoldcoWyard, an automation and conveyer company in Lynchburg. Davis is a process engineer at AMTI, an advanced manufacturing and design company in Lynchburg. Haslow-Hall works as a process engineer for The Clorox Company at its GLAD Manufacturing facility in Amherst, while Harper is an electronics engineer at the National Ground Intelligence Center in Charlottesville.

Thursday was spent working with the College’s 3D printer and finishing up their “smart wearables.” On Friday, the students presented the results of their brainstorming, design and problem-solving teamwork to curious parents, siblings and Sweet Briar community members.

A Harry Potter-inspired belt dishing insults and puns garnered lots of applause, as did the high-five bracelets that detect proximity — “high-fiving for germophobes,” as Yochum put it. Other devices included light-up leggings, a heart rate monitor, bumper shoes for the blind and the water-detector “P.A.N.T.S.” — “Pockets Are Not Totally Soaked.”

One student used Sweet Briar’s school colors for her abacus.

One student used Sweet Briar’s school colors for her abacus.

Some worked, others didn’t, but most had functioned at some point, the students insisted. And for Yochum, it’s all about problem solving and experimenting, anyway.

“Not all of them are going to work, and that’s fine,” he said during his introduction, adding that Sweet Briar professors had not suggested any of the devices students came up with.

“Their projects would be much more lame if we did,” he added, drawing chuckles from the parents.

Madeleine Paulsen, of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., and Jasmine Graham, of Takoma Academy in Maryland, explained just how many hours and late nights they had put into the coding element of their heart rate monitor. The code was so complicated that they had to enlist Yochum and visiting assistant professor Kaelyn Leake ’09 to help write it.

“It was a mess, but we have cool working lights now!” Paulsen said.

Paulsen “loved” working on circuits, but getting introduced to the many facets of engineering — and spending an entire week living on a college campus — topped her list of favorites.

“It’s not necessarily a typical engineering camp where you just do one project,” she said. “We’re doing multiple things. It’s all really fun.”

Daily swims in the lake, a cookout at the Boathouse and shared meals in the dining hall broke up long hours of shop and computer work. By Friday, the students looked tired, but accomplished.

Students practiced using a drill and other shop tools during the abacus project.

Students practiced using a drill and other shop tools during the abacus project.

Like Paulsen, Graham is happy she made the trip to Sweet Briar.

“I wanted to get a feel of what engineering is like because I enjoy building things, but I’m also into other, different subjects,” she said. “I wanted to know [if this is the right field for me].”

She discovered it could well be. Graham was already leaning toward mechanical engineering. After a week of fundamentals, meshing ideas with people from diverse backgrounds, and trial-and-error teamwork, she can “totally see” a career in engineering.

“[We’ve experienced] coding and wiring, so now it’s become more of a real thing for me. I think I’d like to study it.”

For more information about the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

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