“Girls rock!” Landria “Landi” Lark shouted over the chatter of a dozen high school girls and the whirring of coaster-sized robotic cruisers.
“Yes, we do!” came the answering chorus. Conversation and motors suddenly stilled.
Stephanie Chou, an electrical and computer engineering student, answers questions during a circuit-building activity at the Girls Learning Electrical Engineering camp.
Photo by Liz Ahlberg
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“You have 10 more minutes to make adjustments to your cars, and then the races begin,” Lark warned, “so finish any test runs and get fresh batteries now.”
The girls, campers enrolled in the annual Girls Adventures in Math, Engineering and Science camp at the UI, rushed to perfect their two-wheeled, optically guided cars for a head-to-head speed competition.
“Their enthusiasm definitely rubs off on me,” said Lark, a senior in computer engineering from Chicago who volunteers as a lab assistant in the engineering robotics concentration of GAMES. “I really like teaching. The girls are really creative, and just to see them excited about learning makes me excited about teaching it.”
The weeklong camp is geared toward high school students with interests in science and engineering. GAMES includes seven camps, each focusing on a particular engineering discipline: aerospace engineering, bioengineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, environmental engineering, materials science and robotics.
UI students serve as staff members, counselors and lab assistants, and each camp has a faculty adviser guiding the curriculum.
Let’s Get Nerdy
The GAMES camps are sponsored by Women in Engineering, a program in the College of Engineering dedicated to promoting women in science and supporting female students in pursuit of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines – traditionally male-dominated fields.
Agricultural and biological engineering student Kamaria Massey, left, and two campers in the Girls Learning Electrical Engineering camp build wireless communication devices. Later, the campers tested their devices by talking to each other from opposite ends of the hallway.
Photo by Liz Ahlberg
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The theme of GAMES 2012 was “Let’s Get Nerdy,” a statement that encourages girls to embrace their scientific curiosity.
“I’m very adamant that women get involved in the sciences,” said Rachel Kluber, a senior in mathematics from Batavia, Ill., and the director of the 2012 GAMES camps. “I want to be involved in this because I want to give those girls a positive role model. You can be nerdy and go to GAMES camp and go into engineering and be a successful college student, and also be yourself and have a lot of fun.”
The camps allow Women in Engineering to reach out to young women considering a STEM major, as well as give college students the opportunity to teach and mentor younger girls with the same interests and passions as themselves.
“I think that a lot of us who are involved in these camps see aspects of ourselves at that age in these campers,” said professor Dallas Trinkle, the faculty adviser of the materials science camp. “For the undergrads, they’re not very far removed. They can say, ‘I remember being in high school and being interested in these things.’ It’s great to be spending time with other girls who, in that sense, are very much like you.”
The camps give girls with interests in science and engineering the opportunity to explore those interests and learn about the many career avenues available to them. Campers attend lectures, see demonstrations, perform hands-on lab activities, tour academic research facilities – and above all, ask questions. The camp even held three evening question-and-answer sessions in the residence halls, each with a panel of undergraduate women in different science, math and engineering disciplines. The girls could ask the panelists any questions they had about classes, careers or college life in general. But curiosity was not limited to the evenings. During a wind-power lab in the environmental engineering camp, campers peppered lab assistant Melissa Rios-Chavez with questions about her major and her studies – in particular, the difference between bioengineering and biological engineering. The campers then debated with each other over which major they’d prefer and marveled at their first glimpse of the diversity within engineering fields.
“When I was in high school I had no idea what I wanted to major in,” said Rios-Chavez, a junior from Aurora, Ill., studying bioengineering, “so it’s good that they’re asking questions now. It’s exciting to see them encounter something they’ve never seen before.”
Encountering new fields was one of the main goals that Trinkle had in mind when designing the curriculum for the materials science camp, Girls Learning About Materials. The GLAM staff members face the particular challenge of immersing campers in a subject of which most high school students have little prior knowledge.
“People usually have an idea of what a mechanical engineer or an electrical engineer does, but you don’t get that sort of exposure for materials science,” Trinkle said. “Hopefully the campers come away with a better understanding of the materials they use and see in everyday life, from simple things to complicated technological things.”
Trinkle and the GLAM lab assistants devised a camp schedule that would give the campers a taste of all the flavors of materials research – including ice cream and chocolate. By the end of the week, the campers had hands-on experience with 3-D printing and semiconductor etching, had toured clean rooms and seen how self-healing materials are made, and learned the striking similarities between aluminum alloy processing and chocolate making.
“I got an email from a parent whose daughter went to the camp. She was so excited that when she went home, she gave a two-hour presentation about all she had learned,” Trinkle said. “Her younger sisters were enraptured.”
From camper to counselor
Savana Savage, of Durand, Ill., first came to the Urbana-Champaign campus as an eager seventh-grade student, ready for a week of engineering camp. Now a sophomore studying agricultural and biological engineering at the UI, Savage just as enthusiastically returned to the camp as a counselor.
“All summer I was looking forward to it,” Savage said. “It made my whole year so much better, because I was so excited about coming back as a counselor. It’s made the whole university experience even better to be a part of something.”
Although the camp is now solely geared toward high school students, Savage attended two years as a middle school student. GAMES piqued her interest after a friend returned from camp one summer abuzz with stories. As a seventh grader, Savage enrolled in the structures camp, which gave the campers experience in civil engineering. Her eighth-grade year, she attended the newly added bioengineering camp. This is the camp that she now counsels for and the camp that inspired her to investigate the field that became her major.
“It definitely helped me in my decision of what I wanted to major in and where I wanted to go to school,” Savage said. “I learned that I can take math and science, which I love, and incorporate them into different types of engineering. Since they introduce you to so many of the engineering disciplines, I was able to choose one.”
The organizers try to give the campers a taste of college life with their GAMES experience. The camp experience begins with a collegiate admissions process, requiring an application, transcripts and letters of recommendation. The campers stay in the residence halls, where the counselors act as resident advisers. They have a full class schedule, eat meals in the dining halls, and have time to explore campus and participate in fun activities in the evening.
“We are trying to make it similar to a day in the life of a college student in engineering,” Kluber said. “It’s a great way to find out about what college is like, or what it’s like to live with a roommate. Is a big university right for you? Is engineering right for you? You learn a lot about yourself, too.”
For Savage, the student-life experience she gained as a camper drew her to Illinois for her bachelor’s degree.
“I’m really glad that I got exposed to it because it definitely helped me to know about UI before applying to colleges,” Savage said. “Being on campus and meeting the professors was a big factor in my decision to go here.”
Her GAMES experience also helped prepare Savage for the course work she would encounter as a college student. It gave her an advantage in the lab, where her familiarity with equipment and techniques helped her succeed as a freshman.
“It definitely helped me get a lot of lab experience, so that was really nice,” she said. “My first semester, we worked with cells and not a lot of people knew how to use the pipettes, but I knew how to do that from camp.”
As a counselor, Savage now enjoys seeing her campers experiencing the campus and the classes for the first time. She fields questions that pop up en route to class or other activities and encourages her campers to share their discoveries during mealtimes and evening downtime.
“Yesterday they took their own DNA from cheek cells and made little necklaces. They were all excited about it,” Savage said. “A few of the girls were saying how they really wanted to go into bioengineering because of camp, so that was pretty cool.”
Witnessing such enthusiasm and discovery is what motivated Kluber to direct the 2012 camp, and will likely bring her back to direct the 2013 camp.
“My favorite thing about GAMES is seeing the girls at night, after they’ve had a long day of classes; they’re so tired but they’re still so excited to be there,” Kluber said. “It’s so nice to see all these young women finding a niche when they come here.”
UI students who staff the GAMES camps spend a week teaching and investing in younger women. But the camps teach the counselors a lot, too.
Some of the lessons they learned:
Caroline Cvetkovic. (BS in bioengineering ’11, now a graduate student): “This is my fourth year with the GAMES camp. It’s really fun. It reminds me every year why engineering is so exciting, to see it through they eyes of students who are younger. They’re really amazed by everything they see and learn.”
Rachel Kluber, GAMES director (senior, mathematics): “I’ve made such good friends through this program. I’m not an engineering student, but I feel that it’s opened the door for me being able to meet the amazing faculty and students, because we do have a great engineering program. It’s very inspiring to be around them. I am a math major, so I’m a woman in the sciences, but I also want to be a high school principal, so GAMES is a good fit for me.”
Landria “Landi” Lark (senior, computer engineering): “I think it keeps you sane, in a sense. Always being on the receiving end all the time in classes, you need something to keep you excited. You get experience working with others, and it looks great on your resume. I definitely feel like I’m more confident, like I’m a better speaker just from the day-to-day interaction with the parents, faculty members and campers.
“GAMES camp is one of the best things I’ve done. I’ve gone back to my high school as an advocate for GAMES and tried to get the high schoolers into it so they know about it too. If you’re interested in math or science, you need to apply for this program.”
Melissa Rios-Chavez (junior, bioengineering): “When I found out we had an environmental engineering camp, I was so excited. I was a counselor last year. I had such a good time, I couldn’t wait to do it again. It’s just a good experience to hang out with the girls and teach them. Even making friends with all the counselors has enriched my life as a student. I see them in class and it’s brought even more connections into my life.”