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Engineering, Camp-Style

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Esmeralda Fisher
Assistant professor Gila Stein teaches GRADE campers about plastics in the chemical engineering lab.
Associate professor Len Trombetta works with GRADE campers on creating speakers in styrofoam plates.

Girls in grades eight through twelve enter the UH Cullen College of Engineering on Monday morning, new to the world of algorithms, motors and microscopes. By Friday, they’ve built and programmed a robot.

Girls Reaching and Demonstrating Excellence (GRADE) Camp, the college’s annual summer engineering program, is now in its tenth year and has grown in popularity. Both of the one-week sessions, from June 10 – 14, and June 24 – 28, had full attendance by early March. A keen interest in math and science brings girls from the Houston area to participate in a week of hands-on activities, introducing them to all that engineering offers.

The schedule includes lectures, workshops, and lunch with engineering professionals.

Afternoons are spent in the robotics lab, where campers build Lego Mindstorm robots and master the science of programming.

There’s also the scream lab. Here, campers become familiar with sound waves by adjusting frequency and amplitude on a function generator, and seeing the sound wave change on an oscilloscope. A speaker is then connected to the devices and the sounds of the girls’ vocals change the waves. 

The purpose of the camp is to boost girls’ confidence to pursue a career in engineering.

Civil engineering senior Krystal Gutierrez was asked by professor Fritz Claydon to be a part of GRADE Camp this year, mentoring the campers on robotics and programming. As a Cullen College student, Gutierrez enjoys interacting with younger students who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“When I talk to them about engineering, it reinforces what I’m doing,” said Gutierrez. “To be able to inspire and influence them is really cool.”

Gutierrez, the 2013-2014 president of the Clean Energy Initiative at UH, was mentored by civil and environmental engineering faculty Hanadi Rifai and Debora Rodrigues for the NAE Grand Challenges program, in which she researched solar-powered desalination. Now, through GRADE Camp, she hopes to influence a younger generation of engineers and create a welcoming presence in a field dominated by males.

“It’s about meeting other girls with similar interests. The best thing about it is being able to learn new skills in a group environment.”

Gutierrez stated that forming connections with classmates and faculty is the key to success in engineering at UH. “The more you’re involved with your school, it becomes your place where you have friends and faculty to talk to.”

Casey Breaux is a computer engineering major who was also asked by Professor Claydon to run GRADE Camp this year. She was on board right away, as a mentor, updating the camp curriculum and taking care of administrative responsibilities.

“It’s a very awesome opportunity. I enjoy anything that targets women in engineering,” said Breaux, who was in the robotics club in high school, and knew from an early age that her future would be in engineering.

“I was in third grade when I was given a box of batteries, a light bulb and wire. Everyone in the class was told to make the bulb light up but we weren’t told how, and I figured it out first,” she recalled. Breaux passes on her enthusiasm for programming to the GRADE campers, who also teach her a few new things as well.

“It’s amazing how much a young mind can be inventive and imaginative,” Breaux said of the GRADE campers. “The girls come up with a better way of doing something, and it’s really encouraging. Today’s kids are learning on the computer at a very young age. It’s good to see these girls coming in prepared.”

Breaux noted that the UH engineering faculty, including Gila Stein, John Glover, and Len Trombetta, who teach GRADE Camp lectures and workshops, strive to reach out to women in engineering. “I’m astounded by how much more personable the professors are, and how much care they have invested in us,” she said. “They give you the opportunity to be involved.”

Engineering is both challenging and exciting. Breaux has taken courses with instructors who inspire students in the lab, which Breaux assures is “better than sitting in a classroom. Once you get in the lab and you get your hands on things, you remember why you chose this. It gets fun again.”

GRADE Camp is a week-long day program designed specifically for girls grades eight through 12 who want to find out what engineering is all about through hands-on experience. The camp is sponsored through industry support from ExxonMobil, Halliburton, BP and Fluor.

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