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Empower each individual to make responsible choices, meet challenges, achieve personal success, and contribute to a global society.

Annual engineering camp for girls sparks interest, energy, and creativity


Related links: Engineering Camp Video   Engineering Camp 2014 in Photos


July 29, 2014

Just because you didn't put it together, doesn't mean you can't take it apart and figure out how it works.

That was a central lesson at this year's summer Engineering Institute for Young Women, as students created "up-cycled lamps," solar-powered cell phone chargers, and a hydraulic arm; produced their own stop-motion animation videos; and manufactured bio-fuel components.

The camp, held in partnership with GE for a third year, aims to spark the interest of young female students in science, engineering, and related fields, and to emphasize the important role that these fields play in our world. Thirty students entering grades 7-9 in the district participated in the camp – four full days of hands-on activities at Niskayuna High School in early July, followed by a culminating visit to GE Global Research.

picture of a student holding a solar charger   picture of students at GE Global Research     picture of student soldering

View the Engineering Institute 2014 in Photos

"I really liked how we do hands-on activities," said Sally Harper, who is entering 7th grade. "It really makes you feel like you are an engineer. And each day is different – you are a type of engineer each day."

Students learned about up-cycling – making something new and useful out of unused or unwanted parts – by designing a lamp out of a plastic 2-liter bottle, compact fluorescent bulbs, and an electrical kit. As they made their solar USB chargers, many of this year's students got to solder for the first time, connecting the electrical components of the solar panel to the USB charger. Some students saw a future for the chargers that they had made giving an energy boost to their phones out in the sun.
"We don't just say that it works, we can explain how it works," said Ada Silverberg, who will enter 8th grade in the fall.

An underlying theme of the week was sustainability, which GE Global Technology Director Danielle Merfield, Ph.D., reinforced in her remarks to students on their visit to the Global Research Center. Merfield talked about projects that engineers and researchers are working on, from helping communities in Africa access clean water to creating efficient, long-lasting light bulbs to building wind turbines that can stand up to the toughest of winds.

Merfield talked about how her love of brain games of a kid and science in school led to a passion for engineering. "I didn't care about jobs when I was your age, but I did care about doing something fun," she said. "One of the cool parts of being an engineer is that problems these days are so tough, you have to work in teams."

The district and GE first partnered on the Engineering Institute for Young Women three summers ago, not long after the American Association of University Women released a report titled, "Why so Few," about the need for more women in the "STEM" fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. It identified recruiting and retaining females in these fields as a national priority.

"Attracting and retaining more women in the STEM workforce will maximize innovation, creativity, and competitiveness," the report's authors wrote. "With a more diverse workforce, scientific and technological products, services, and solutions are likely to be better designed and more likely to represent all users."

Since the camp first started, Niskayuna Science and Technology Director Jackie Carrese said she has been thrilled to see students who attended the camp participate in more science and engineering courses, as well as activities like the high school Robotics Club and Science Bowl teams. The camp was always designed to spark students' interest in science and engineering and to show them how fun and important these fields are – and how good students can be at them.

"It's so important for our female population to participate in the science and engineering fields," Carrese said. "Hopefully the camp will continue to grow. I would love it if students went home and thought that they really wanted to take more courses in these areas, or if they said they wanted to be a scientist when they grow up."

Niskayuna science and technology teachers, including camp Director Paul Scott, guided students through camp activities at Niskayuna High School. Scott said he wanted them to come away with both a great experience and some tangible things that they created themselves, such as the chargers, the lamps, and the hydraulic arm. He hoped that the emphasis on sustainability, creativity, and learning how things work would help students see a place for themselves in STEM fields.

"I want them to see a connection between science, technology, and the world, that takes their interest to a new level," Scott said. "I want them to think, 'Oh that's really cool, I'll experiment with it. That's an important first step."

Students pointed out some of the connections between their own lives, their time at the camp, and their futures.

Sally Harper said her favorite activity involved hydraulics, and that she now better understood how cranes worked. Sophie Nye said her favorite part was the stop-motion animation, and is excited to explore more connections between technology and creativity in the future.

"Everyone gets to see your work, and your work could be used by anyone," Nye said.

Sophie Sacco said the solar charger was her favorite activity.

"It gives you something you can use in real life," Sacco said. "I would definitely think about being an engineer when I grow up. I just like seeing how things in everyday life work and being a part of building such a thing everyone can use."