Summer camp highlights everyday engineering with energy and environmental projects

Area girls connect with ‘Big Brain Theory’ contestant and build energy-efficient homes

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A. Sue Weisler

RIT’s Everyday Engineering Camp, held July 8–12, included hands-on engineering activities and events designed to inspire and encourage young girls interested in the engineering field.

Sometimes a setback or an obstacle can still offer inspiration.

That was one of the many insights the girls discovered during RIT’s Everyday Engineering Camp as they talked online with Amy Elliott, a competitor on the Discovery Channel’s Big Brain Theory reality show. Elliott’s team just missed winning the show’s design challenge, but her message of the importance of teamwork, creativity and collaboration in engineering projects resonated with the middle-school-age girls.

Elliott’s presentation was one of the featured sessions during the camp, held July 8–12 at the university, which included hands-on engineering activities and events designed to inspire and encourage young girls interested in the engineering field. Leading the activities were female engineering students from RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering, as well as K-12 teachers from area high schools.

This year’s theme was “Energy and the Environment,” and in addition to Elliott’s presentation, the girls built energy-efficient dog houses and 3-D zero net energy homes—models with low carbon footprints—as well as windmills, solar ovens and more. They also learned about household container recycling, reverse engineering and participated as part of a skateboard assembly team in the engineering college’s Toyota Production Systems Laboratory. All activities meant to introduce creativity, problem-solving and engineering design skills, says Jodi Carville, director of the Women in Engineering Program, sponsor of the camps.

The girls talked to Elliott, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech, live via video chat, and their questions varied from her reasons for becoming an engineer to her experiences on the show.

Abby Sykes, a fifth-grader from Rogers Middle School in West Irondequoit, asked: “Were you intimidated by any of the other contestants?”

Elliott shared that she was more concerned about not doing well and making women engineers look horrible than being intimidated by other contestants. Her academic advisor convinced her to continue and said that she didn’t have to carry the weight of all women engineers on her shoulders. That encouragement proved useful. During the final challenges, the last two teams, including Elliott’s, had to build and assemble a bridge that had to be transportable, fit onto the back of a pick-up truck and span a ravine. Unfortunately, Elliott’s team fell short by mere inches.

“In engineering you have to be able to work together, to work as a team. It’s not about fighting for your idea. It’s about combining ideas into a really good idea,” she said. “And it’s better with more minds on a problem.”

Carville agreed: “I applaud Amy’s courage, her intelligence and her ability to lead. She’s achieved a lot already in her short career. She’s not only a role model for the young girls in these summer camps, but for our female engineering students.”

Note: A photo gallery and video from the Everyday Engineering Camp are available.

Note: Video available for this story