AMHERST--A rising senior in high school, Jamison Tarver’s interest in one day earning a living as an engineer brought her by plane from Texas to Sweet Briar College last week.
The Houston resident previously visited the Amherst campus on a family trip and spoke with professors, toured its engineering facilities and heard about the college’s summer Explore Engineering offering, a week-long residential course for rising sophomore, junior and senior girls.
“And I was really impressed because not a lot of all-girl schools have that sort of thing, if anything at all,” Jamison said of the engineering program. “I called my dad and said ‘I have to go to this thing.’”
Jamison was among 11 students in the summer course tinkering on various projects Thursday as she worked to attach light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, to an umbrella. The course, which concluded Friday, drew students from states such as Oregon, Colorado, Indiana and Maryland with a shared focus of learning more about engineering, some as a possible career path.
The college’s Explore offerings, which include weekend events in the spring and fall, are a series of immersive engineering design courses allowing high school students to work with faculty and in teams on creative design projects. In the past decade, more than 500 students have attended courses and designed objects such as automated music devices, sustainable building materials and automatically refilling pet bowls, among others, according to the college’s website.
Bethany Brinkman, director of the college’s engineering program and an associate professor, said the courses give students hands-on experience and a taste of a potential career field with a wide range of opportunities.
“It’s important for engineers to have hands-on projects because we think of engineering as a service profession,” Brinkman said. “We need to be able to build, we need to be able to understand how they [engineers] work in the real world.”
She said oftentimes young women aren’t exposed to the many mechanical tools, electronics and settings for building devices that Sweet Briar provides. An example is the shop in the Guion Science Center which has a wide collection of power tools and machinery to make objects out of wood and metal, she said.
“Letting them have that in a supportive, fun, challenging and creative atmosphere really lets them see themselves as engineers,” Brinkman said.
Along with the course work that earns participants a college credit, Brinkman said students enjoy picnics, hearing from a panel of alumni who work in fields of engineering and touring sites such as GLAD Manufacturing in Amherst and Vector Space in Lynchburg to observe how engineering is part of the community.
Many students who have come through the courses have interest in areas such as improving the environment, advancing prosthetics and designing better machines and equipment, she said.
“It’s a wonderful profession ... there is certainly a demand for engineers to address societal problems,” Brinkman said. “We are looking to inspire all of them.”
Kaelyn Leake, assistant professor of engineering, said students’ projects this past week included water filtration, lights, sounds and dancing kangaroos. The course helps give them a better understanding of engineering and if it is a field they want to pursue, she said.
“We want to generally increase the women in engineering,” Leake said. “Because it’s a women-only course, we can do that.”
Jamison said she thought faculty did a good job of condensing material that could fill a semester into a week and she found it easy to understand. She has been on her high school robotics team since her freshman year and is striving for a career in electrical engineering.
“I love being able to work with faculty that might be my teachers one day,” Jamison said. “... Electrical engineering is something that I really love to do.”
Ashton Jones, a junior from Raleigh, North Carolina, said she is interested in Sweet Briar’s equestrian program and enjoys engineering, though it is not her desired career path. She wants to become a doctor.
The course gave her opportunities to work with new tools she hadn’t previously been exposed to and she’s cherished the relationships built.
“I’ve really enjoyed it, and I’ve made a bunch of friends too,” Ashton said.
Katie Adams, a sophomore from Indiana, said the course helped her learn how to code and taught her about various types of engineering as she considers careers she wants to pursue. As part of an interactive art project, Katie and Ari Hampton, a junior from Maryland, worked Thursday on a device to make confetti and glitter pop out out of a tube.
They worked on their creation as power tools from the adjacent shop were heard in the background. Katie said the two coded a motor to stir up the confetti and glitter and frequency of sound and voices also tied into the design work.
“It’s got to work by tomorrow because we’re presenting it,” Katie said Thursday of the device.
She said she would recommend the course to others.
“It’s a really great program,” Ari said.
Hank Yochum, associate dean of academic affairs, said he was part of the faculty who started the Explore program a decade ago with a goal of getting more women into the field of engineering and recruiting students.
“We wanted to have a girls-only environment and to really emphasize being creative, using electronics, fabrication tools and working together,” Yochum said. “A lot of times students don’t get that kind of engagement with their education, so we’re really trying to make it clear to them how fun learning can be in a way that’s a little bit different than most students have experienced.”
He said when he was growing up many tools students have access to were not available and he would have loved such a course. It’s fun for faculty to see the students’ inventions and surveys show a lot of participants who come to the Explore events go on to pursue engineering or other fields in science, technology and math.
“We want them to see engineering is something they can do and that’s maybe a little more compelling than they thought it was.”
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.