Last week, high school students in Sweet Briar’s Summer 2013 AREVA Explore Engineering camp huddled around their blue and pink kiddie pools in Guion, but their work wasn’t exactly child’s play.
They were building a mechatronic lock-and-dam system.
Each group of four to five girls had to connect two plastic swimming pools with a “river” made of Plexiglas and duct tape. A remote-controlled boat had to be maneuvered from one pool to the other by way of sensors hooked up to a computer. The students designed their own doors using supplies they purchased at Walmart and Lowe’s, plus whatever else they could find in the engineering department. Various hinges, gears and electronic wires were used to construct a system that included water and float sensors, as well as magnetic switches — all controlled by a computer.
“It always happens that they come up with ideas we never even thought of before,” said Hank Yochum, who directs the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program.
Sometimes, those ideas work, but not always. That’s okay, Yochum said.
“It’s not about everything working, it’s about trying something new and not giving up.”
The camp, after all, is all about exploration. That there’s value in this concept has not escaped AREVA, who in February donated $35,000 to sponsor Explore Engineering events this summer, fall and next spring. While the nuclear engineering company has worked with Sweet Briar before, it’s the first time it has underwritten the College’s Explore Engineering series.
Founded in 2008, Explore Engineering events draw students from several states, with more than 200 participating over the past five years.
The weeklong summer camp is open to rising female high school seniors and juniors and focuses on hands-on, team-based engineering design challenges. Throughout the week, students collaborate in small groups, often working until late at night, and present the final results to family and friends at the end of the camp.
This year’s was one of the most complicated challenges yet, Yochum said. In addition to designing their own computer-controlled system, students learned how to write code, solder and use drills.
Perhaps more importantly, they discovered that they could do things they didn’t know they were capable of before. That in itself is of great value, said engineering and physics instructor Bethany Brinkman, who directed the project along with associate professor Scott Pierce.
“They’re gaining a lot of confidence,” she said.
Many of the girls, she added, had never been to Lowe’s before. Tuesday’s shopping trip was a first, as was using the materials they brought back. In just one week, the students went from an interest in the field to gaining actual skills.
If previous statistics hold up, 20 percent of them will end up enrolling at Sweet Briar, and many others will attend engineering programs elsewhere — either way, the camp has been influential in shaping participants’ career goals. Three of four Sweet Briar students helping with this year’s event are Explore Engineering alumnae.
In fact, the program has become so popular that it is beginning to outgrow Sweet Briar’s engineering facilities. Several applicants had to be turned down for lack of space, and Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink offered her biology lab as a second classroom for the camp.
“We could handle a bigger group, but it would take a lot of planning, more staff and a couple more rooms,” Yochum said.
After all, he added, he wants participants to get a real feel for what it would be like to study engineering at Sweet Briar, and that usually doesn’t include taking over another department.
For now, AREVA’s generous donation has secured funding for the next year, and Yochum and Brinkman couldn’t be happier.
“We are very thankful to AREVA,” Brinkman said.
To get a closer look at this year’s camp, see the media coverage by WSET ABC-13.