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Summer Engineering Camps Challenge and Motivate High School Students

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Esmeralda Fisher
Professor Glover guides campers in building and programming their robot.
Professor Glover guides campers in building and programming their robot.

High school students explored the world of engineering at two camps this summer, hosted by the UH Cullen College of Engineering.

STEP Forward Camp, led by the Program for Mastery in Engineering Studies (PROMES), is a weeklong residential program that gives rising high school seniors an inside look at engineering. The curriculum includes site visits to Houston companies and team-based projects and activities on campus. Participants get a taste of college life as they live in a UH dorm for the week, and interact with Cullen College faculty and engineering professionals to discuss academics and future career options.

For any student interested in engineering, finding the right program can be a daunting task. STEP Forward Camp helps define and narrow down college major choices. “I did some research on programs for engineering and saw that this camp is well-rounded, in that it covers many fields of engineering,” says Christian Rivera of St. Thomas High School.

Site tours to area companies like ExxonMobil and HP gave the students an opportunity to speak with professional engineers. Many of the students found the employee discussion panels to be the most valuable part of the camp. “We spoke with real engineers,” says Illyana Martinez, a Pearland High School senior. “I really liked the presentations because they talked about school and résumés, and it seemed like they really like their jobs.”

In addition to company tours, participants engaged in activities designed to build teamwork and communication skills, including construction of Popsicle stick roller coasters and straw towers. Brandi Smith from Corpus Christi enjoyed the opportunity to meet other teens interested in engineering. “Just being here makes it a lot more interesting,” she says.

Megan Wood of Cinco Ranch High School realized there are diverse opportunities within engineering. “Both of my parents are engineers,” she says. “Before, I wanted to pursue international relations as a major because I want to travel. I’ve learned through this camp that I can do that through engineering. It’s just really exposed me to a lot about engineering.” By the end of the camp, many of the participants had a clear goal set for their future, like Sheldon Williams from St. Thomas High School. “I want to study biomedical engineering,” he says. “UH is my first choice.”

The Girls Reaching and Demonstrating Excellence (GRADE) Camp welcomed girls from grades eight-12 who are interested in science and engineering. Now in its eighth year, the camp is divided in two one-week sessions, accommodating nearly 50 girls. The campers were immersed in an interactive atmosphere of lectures and activities designed to challenge their minds and pique their curiosity.

Undergraduates Audra Patterson, a UH business major, and Allison Pekkanen, a biomedical engineering major from UT, became involved with GRADE Camp through the Research Experience for Undergraduates. “We were working with Professor Claydon, and he needed people to help with GRADE Camp,” says Audra. The two, along with other engineering undergraduates, organized the schedule of events for the camp. They led the activities and served as “super-mentors” for the girls, sharing their experiences and advice.

“We would do an ice-breaker activity each morning, and then bring in professors to talk about topics in engineering, like voltage and current, motors and generators, and using math and science for problem-solving,” Audra says. Challenging exercises like building circuits and making working speakers from paper plates gave the campers a fun way to see the application of the concepts they learned about in the lectures.

Afternoons were spent building and programming a robot in stages. The result was a sound-capable robot that could navigate a maze using avoidance sensors. At the end of the week, the girls gave final project presentations to show parents what they had accomplished.

The overarching goal of GRADE Camp is to instill in its participants the confidence to pursue engineering, a field that is still largely devoid of women. Campers also interacted with female industry professionals from ExxonMobil and BP over lunch. The professionals, some of whom are UH alums, spoke candidly about their career path, motivating the girls to envision themselves as future engineers.

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