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An introduction to engineering, with a dash of glitter on the side

Middle school girls test out how well their homemade boats perform in a pool set up in the Swenson Civil Engineering Building at the University of Minnesota Duluth while UMD students and staff look on. The girls learned about engineering by constructing their own motorized boats. (Bob King / / 4
Ordean East Middle School student Kate Weaver shouts “go, go” to her Styrofoam boat as she launches it in a pool in the Swenson Civil Engineering Building at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Wednesday. Katelyn Mayne (right), of North Star Academy, adds encouragement. The girls, all middle school students, learned about engineering by constructing their own motorized boats. (Bob King / / 4
UMD engineering student Caleb Sanderson helps Hermantown student Nikki Worachak check the motor on her boat. (Bob King / / 4
Katherine Kolomitsyna, a student at Marshall School, and Saleha Ali, a student at Hermantown Middle School, work together to build and paint their Styrofoam boat Wednesday in the Swenson Civil Engineering Building at UMD. (Bob King / / 4

Excitement and trepidation seemed to coalesce the moment Mikaela Smith dipped her creation into the water.

Taking a step back, the soon-to-be ninth-grader at Marshall School pushed a button on her remote control and sent the Styrofoam boat sputtering right into the side of the inflatable pool.

She was pleased, save for one minor detail.

“It definitely is not turning as fast as I hoped it would,” said Mikaela, who spent much of this week constructing her boat as part of the E-Fun Tech Camp, an introduction to engineering for girls at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“We want to really spark their imagination,” said Rebecca Teasley, camp instructor and assistant professor in UMD’s civil engineering program. “At this age, it’s important to let them play with it, instead of sitting them down and telling them what an engineer does.”

The weeklong camp gives girls in local middle schools a chance to explore various aspects of engineering by building and programing Styrofoam boats, cooking up some “chocolate asphalt” — a fusion of melted chocolate chips, granola, pretzels and candy — and working with tools and instruments they might never have handled before.

“Each day we’ve done something different with each of the areas,” Teasley said. “We do a lot of hands-on playing with engineering concepts.”

Camps that focus on the STEM fields  —  science, technology, engineering and math  —  have been popping up across the country, both for boys and girls. The Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Duluth started a STEM program for high school and college students in 2010.

Getting through to girls while they’re young is critical, Teasley said, because when girls enter high school, they tend to lose interest in the STEM fields.

According to numbers released by the White House last year, women make up just 24 percent of the STEM workforce in the United States.

Teasley said the outlook isn’t any better at UMD, where only 12 percent of civil engineering students are female.

“We’re really underrepresented,” Teasley said. “We’re trying to recruit women at college age now, but (middle school) is really where you have to get their attention.”

For Teasley and the camp’s other organizers, getting the attention of teen and preteen girls has meant giving the campers plenty of creative latitude. And that means decorating.

“We include these elements of glitter and art and design,” she said. “They’re really not bound by a traditional classroom setting.”

Mikaela, who said she’s torn between studying engineering or art when she gets older, didn’t go as crazy with the glitter as some of the other girls did, preferring a more modest-looking vessel.

At the other end of the lab, some girls were fixing mechanical problems with their boats. Others were taking a little more time to decorate.

One such decorator was Katelyn Mayne, who starts seventh grade at the North Star Academy this fall.

Katelyn dubbed her ship the “PARTY” boat in bright, colorful letters across the back.

“It’s a dance party, or a birthday party, but mostly a dance party,” she said. “I like the color pink, so it’s super-pinked. Plus, party boats are awesome.”

Poring over her masterpiece like a mad scientist, Katelyn added a splash of glitter.

“There,” she announced. “Now it’s gorgeously glittery.”

A table over, two girls were getting help from Caleb Sanderson, a camp helper and electrical engineering student at UMD.

“Turn it just a tiny bit more,” he told a girl who was using a screwdriver to adjust one of her wheels. “Just a teensy bit more.”

Sanderson said he never had the chance to build something from scratch when he was the girls’ age.

“I would have been all over it,” he said. “I always liked tearing things apart and finding out what’s inside.”

A lab manager assistant at UMD, Sanderson said there are very few girls in his engineering classes.

“It’s mostly dominated by males,” he said. “That’s why this is so refreshing. I don’t care what gender you are. If you find this stuff interesting, I’m going to help you. I wish I had someone to help me do this when I was little.”

A few feet away, Katelyn threw another dash of glitter on the party boat.

“I think that’s enough,” she said, wiggling her sparkling fingertips. “Look at my hands.”

Kate Weaver, who will be a freshman at Duluth East High School this fall, wasn’t just thinking outside of the box with her boat. She was throwing the box away.

“Mine isn’t going to be a boat anymore,” Kate said. Her vessel suffered from an over-active wheel that caused the ship to spin in circles.

“I’m going to put on a front wheel and make it a car,” she said, poking holes through the bottom of the Styrofoam.

Sanderson said one of his favorite parts about helping the girls is seeing the “light bulb” come on when they finally master a concept. That light bulb came on for Sanderson as a boy, when he would retrieve junk his neighbors were trying to throw away.

“I would take all the junk and rip it apart,” he recalled. “That started my love for all things electronic.”

Meanwhile, Kate’s vehicle was about ready for the road.

“Look,” Sanderson said. “Her car is working.”

The small mass of Styrofoam, wood and plastic scooted around a table leg and across the floor.

“It’s a car now,” Kate said.