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Teens try out active design at Sweet Briar camp

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Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 9:55 am

In a suite of classrooms at Sweet Briar College, the sounds of conversation and music merged with the whine of power tools.

The song playing from the radio may have declared otherwise, but this was no teenage wasteland as 22 future engineers from around the country converged on the campus to participate in the college’s Areva-sponsored Summer Explore Engineering camp, held last week.

“A lot of young people don’t know what engineering is,” engineering professor Hank Yochum said. The camp, which began in 2008 for high school girls, “is a neat way for them to see all the flavors of engineering in one project.”

This year, future engineers recreated the mechanics behind locks and dams. By connecting two plastic kiddie pools with plastic chutes, teams of three to four girls used magnets, leaf switches, infrared proximity sensors and electronic circuits to control a toy boat’s journey between gates that opened and closed by computer program. 

Each team received $50 to purchase supplies for their projects, and the hardware was a combination of high- and low-tech.

Armed with a glue gun, 16-year-old Sally Crouch, from North Carolina, wasn’t convinced that her solution to water leaks — shower curtain material secured to the walls of a chute — was adequate.

“I’m thinking, ‘what if the boat falls down and gets stuck,’ ” countered her teammate Imani Simpson, 16, also from North Carolina.

According to Yochum, problem-solving is a focus of the camp.

“We want to give a challenge, but we don’t want to be intimidating,” Yochum said.

Annalise Billings, of Fairfax, often referred to her notebook, which was filled with marks and dashes. The 16-year-old, who is considering studying engineering or industrial design, was busy programming a centralized computer with the logic language that controls the opening and closing of her project’s gates.

North Carolina resident Brigitte Bulter, 17, admitted that engineering can be a little trying at times and involves a lot of trial and error.

“If one of us comes up with a good idea, we kind of go with that,” she said.

The camp ends with a presentation of each team’s creation, allowing the girls to see if their projects were successful.

“We never expect everyone’s [project] to work completely,” Yochum said. “It’s about learning as you go.”

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