Middle School Girls Explore Engineering at PhilaU Summer Camp

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Summer camp participants test the speed of their remotely operated vehicles.

“Ready, set, go!” shouted Parth Patel, a sophomore engineering student at Philadelphia University, standing beside an above-ground pool in front of Hayward Hall this week.

At Patel’s cue, eight teams of middle school girls attending the University’s two-week summer camp started navigating remotely operated vehicles through an underwater obstacle course for the camp’s final engineering challenge on Aug. 14.

The students were charged with building a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that would be able to maneuver successfully through five hoops in a timed race. Eighth-grader Giana Engram’s team set the leaderboard early on with a course-completion time of two minutes fifty-nine seconds.

Over the past two weeks, 36 students from the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania learned about the engineering process through ROV prototype construction and research done in preparation for the camp’s energy debate.

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Camp participants present their research on alternative energy sources at the annual energy debate.

The camp, which is sponsored by the U.S. Navy, is designed to cultivate interest in the fields of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the STEM fields—in local middle-school girls, who are under-represented in these fields. This is the 10th year PhilaU has run the STEM summer camp.

Fernando Tovia, an associate professor of engineering who conducted the camp, said that increasing the number of STEM professionals in America is “a national need” that needs to be encouraged at a young age. “They need to be math- and science-ready when they go to college,” Tovia said. “There are plenty of opportunities in engineering, but you need to be ready.”

The energy debate also helps students expand their communication skills. They learn to research, evaluate reliable sources, present a summary of their findings and defend their position through oral arguments. Students worked in teams to debate the merits of such alternative energy sources as nuclear, solar, wind or hydroelectric energy.

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Members of the winning debate group (from left to right) Maya Moore, Tianna Teagle and Mya Lockings show off their ROV design.

Mya Lockings, who will soon start eighth grade at Country Day School of the Sacred Hearth, was on the winning team defending biofuels. Lockings, who wants to be pediatric psychologist, said the debate helped sharpen her leadership skills. “I definitely got more confident in public speaking,” she said. “Maybe I’d like to be a lawyer, but engineering sounds really cool, too.”

“This is my second time being involved in this camp,” said Cleo Henderson, an electrical engineer with the U.S. Navy who judged the ROV race. “Watching them be excited about science and engineering inspires me.”

On the final day of camp Aug. 15, the students will tour the research and development laboratories at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, and present their new understanding of robotics and alternative energy sources to Navy officials before receiving their certificates of completion.

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