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G.A.M.E.S. Camp Seeks to Navigate Girls into Aerospace Engineering

Brian Woodard and a couple of GAMES campers follow the flight of one of the girls' rockets.
Brian Woodard and a couple of GAMES campers follow the flight of a rocket during the launch event at Dodds' Park.

August 7, 2013

The temperature wasn't the only thing going up on July 19th, the final afternoon of the 2013 G.A.M.E.S. Aerospace Engineering camp. On one of the hottest afternoons of the summer, nothing could keep the 20 girls who attended the camp; Brian Woodard, the camp director; and his enthusiastic Aerospace Engineering team from braving the heat to launch the rockets and gliders the girls had built, most of which soared high into the clouds above Dodds' Park.

The girls who attended the one-week Aerospace Engineering G.A.M.E.S. camp were treated to what Woodard calls "all the neat stuff that is in aerospace." Besides building and flying rockets and gliders (complete with "re-entry" parachutes which would hopefully break the fall—not their rockets or gliders), the girls learned about the physics of flight and aerodynamics and experienced Aerospace's wind tunnel. A highlight of the week was a visit to Willard Airport's Institute of Aviation. In addition to practicing on flight simulators, the girls got to actually go up for a flight in a two-seat training prop, even briefly taking the controls.

Flightstar instructor (left) shows a GAMES camper how to navigate while using the flight simulator.
Aviation Institute instructor (left) explains how to use the flight simulator to a GAMES camper.

The Aerospace Engineering G.A.M.E.S. camp was in its second year. Camp director both years, Brian Woodard isn't new to the summer camp scene. While in grad school, he helped Dianne Jeffers run the Illinois Aerospace Institute, a co-ed camp that has been wooing high schoolers into Aerospace Engineering since the early 90s.

Why spend the hottest week of the summer to work with a bunch of high school girls? "I really like working with summer programs," says Woodard. "When I heard that there was the opportunity for someone to be in charge of their own curriculum for the camp and make it the way they wanted it, I jumped at that opportunity. I thought it sounded really fun. I really like working with high school students. I had a really good time with it last year."

Aerospace GAMES camper tests the parachute she is making for her rocket.
Aerospace GAMES camper tests the parachute she is making for her rocket.

Woodard, whose teaching philosophy for the camp is one-on-one instructor-pupil interaction, has put his stamp on the program. Rather than taking students around to guest presentations by people in different labs, the camp's three instructors worked with the students all week, exposing them to different aspects of Aerospace engineering.

Woodard says, "I really like that. I think you get to know all the students really well." And last year's students got to know him well enough to communicate with him when they had questions: Reports Woodard: "I've been in contact with students from last year wanting to know about college or Aerospace."

Working alongside Woodard for the week were two female grad students. In addition to serving as instructors (one specializes in aerodynamic wind tunnel testing; the other in spacecraft design), as women who have chosen and are excelling in the field of Aerospace Engineering, they served as excellent role models for the girls. And according to Woodard, the goal of the GAMES camp is to ultimately increase the number of women who not only choose careers in Aeronautical Engineering—but choose to study at Illinois.

"I think that, overall, the department hopes that we get more female students in our department. I'm not sure what the percentage of women in each of the departments is, or what the overall for the college is, but it's pretty low. Our department would love to get it higher, closer to 50%...Anything we can do to help get more women in the department."

Aerospace GAMES camper works on the parachute for her rocket.
Aerospace GAMES camper works on the parachute for her rocket

Having worked many years with high school students in the co-ed Illinois Aerospace Institute, as well as the inaugural run of the Aerospace GAMES last year, Woodard notes a difference between the students in the two camps: Aerospace Institute students have pretty much settled on Aerospace Engineering as a career; GAMES campers tend to be experimenting:

Explains Woodard: "The students who came to the coed camp seem to have picked that camp out of all the summer camps they could come to because they were really interested in aerospace. They had a lot of ideas about, 'I wanna' make rockets,' or 'I wanna' build airplanes.' They had really set goals…Whereas, with the GAMES camp...a lot of these students thought, 'Aerospace, that sounds kind of neat. I might not really know what that is, but that sounds kinda' cool. So I'll try that camp!' And so the background was different."

GAMES camper (left) and Flightstar instructor prepare for take off.
GAMES camper and her Aviation Institute instructor (left) prepare for takeoff.

Although he is passionate about recruiting students into his field, Woodard recognizes that every girl who attends GAMES isn't going to choose aerospace engineering…or even engineering for that matter. He shares an anecdote about a girl from last year's GAMES camp who came up to him and confided, "'You know, I really did have fun…I appreciate all of the stuff you guys did. But I am now certain I don't want to be an engineer." And Woodard is ok with that. "You don't want them to go to college and waste two years or something finding that out," he admits. "If they really know this isn't for them, that's good."

While he knows everyone isn't cut out for engineering, Woodard's ultimate goal is to hopefully navigate some girls into Aerospace: "I thought it was really fun to be able to show them all the neat stuff that is in aerospace, and what aerospace engineers do…I hope that we guided some of them into wanting to be aerospace engineers."

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

For additional I-STEM articles about 2013 G.A.M.E.S. camp, see:

GAMES camper prepares rocket for launch.
Aerospace GAMES camper prepares her glider for launch.