Engineering a Future

Think for a moment about a mini-basketball hoop, PVC tubing, a funnel, flotation “noodles,” scissors, tape, Diet Coke and Mentos mints. Now, think about how you can use those items to get a ping-pong ball to move 5 feet. And t…and the more steps that are involved, the more successful your effort will be. In addition to the design challenge involved, the project has budget constraints and a strict timeline, in keeping with real-world engineering environments.

That’s the essence of the Rube Goldberg competition at Tennessee Tech’s Engineering a Future camp for 7th and 8th grade girls. Engineering a Future is an opportunity and springboard for young women with an interest in problem solving and creative thinking, and a hands-on experience in the always-evolving world of engineering.

“There’s such a demand for researchers and engineers with a STEM background,” said coordinator and TTU mechanical engineering professor Corinne Darvennes. “We see Engineering a Future as a great way to enhance awareness in those fields, for girls who already have an interest in them at the elementary and junior-high level.”

Funded in part by the National Space Grant, Engineering a Future is an outgrowth of a one-day event for 5th and 6th grade girls; most EaF participants are veterans of this event, held at the end of E-Week in February. Throughout the four days of EaF, girls are kept busy with projects like fashioning rockets out of film canisters, with Alka-Seltzer and citric acid for fuel; , building a simple motor using a 9-volt battery and an electromagnet; , or learning the principles of hydraulics with a model crane and two syringes connected by tubing. The EaF participants were also visited by working engineers from Cummins Filtration, who discussed some of the principles used in projects.

With mechanical engineering professor Chris Wilson, the EaF girls built trebuchets, scale models of the siege engine catapult weapons of medieval times. Fashioned from PVC tubing, the trebuchets are designed to launch a tennis ball and sling, with the competition for farthest launch taking place on the last day of camp. The trebuchet projects are a great hands-on experience in building shop skills, with girls using angle grinders, drills and nut-and-bolt connectors to assemble the devices. “One thing that I have consistently heard,” said Wilson, “is girls saying, ‘I’ve never used a hand drill, or saw, or whatever power tool. l…but it’s okay and not that hard.’ And of course, we’re always stressing safety, with personal protective equipment like safety glasses in a shop environment. The girls are very excited and competitive, but at the same time they see the importance of collaborating and working as a team, and that sparks some longtime bonds and friendships.”

“Really, when you think about it, pretty much everything in the whole world is designed and built by an engineer,” said Annika Watson, of Chattanooga. “Every little piece or configuration had an engineer involved at some point. But I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why do you want to go into engineering? That’s a guy thing,’ to which I just say, ‘No, not necessarily, why should it be?’ I mean, people said the same thing about doctors and the field of medicine at one point."

Too soon, the four-day EaF camp is over, parents are back in town, bags are packed and it’s time to go home to finish out a summer and think about starting a new school year. If there’s one thing that Chris Wilson hears every year during EaF, it’s this: “Are we going to do this again next year?”