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Mommy, Me, & SWE: Middle School Girls Find Out About Engineering While Finding Dory

A Mommy, Me, and SWE participant launches the catapult she designed in the Mechanical Engineering activity.

November 17, 2016

Engineering is not only fun, but can be used to help solve practical, real-world problems —even not-so-real problems—like finding Dory. This is the message Mommy, Me, and SWE sought to convey to the 30 local middle school girls (and their moms) who participated in the all-day outreach event on Saturday, November 12th. While participating in the event's fun and engaging hands-on activities, the mother-daughter teams were exposed to a number of different engineering disciplines as Illinois students brought engineering down to a level the kids (and even the moms) could understand.

Hosted by the Illinois chapter of SWE (Society of Women Engineers), the day was made even more special because most of the events featured characters from a recent movie most of the kids had no doubt seen—Finding Dory. For instance, in most activities, the mother-daughter teams were challenged to use the different engineering disciplines in some fashion to help the characters from the movie find Dory.

For example, in one activity, mother-daughter teams were to use Mechanical Engineering to help Dory jump back into her tank. Using the available materials, they were to design a lever-like contrivance that would send Dory (represented by a ping pong ball) flying back into the “tank.”

A mother-daughter team works on cleaning up the oil spill during the Chemical Engineering rotation at Mommy, Me, and SWE.

According to SWE Co-Outreach Coordinator Abbie Gerth, this activity appeared to be one of the kids’ favorites. “They really enjoyed the mechanical engineering activity,” Gerth says, “which was a sling shot in the form of a lever. So they really liked learning about levers and making the see-saw sling shot—especially getting to fling the ping pong balls. So that one was definitely a hit. That one we’ll keep on doing.”

For the Chemical Engineering activity, the scenario was that the kids couldn’t find Dory because the water was made dark and murky by an oil spill. So mother-daughter teams used a variety of materials (dish detergent, flour, cotton balls, etc.) to determine which material/method was most effective in cleaning up the oil spill.

The Civil & Environmental Engineering activity featured a scenario where Dory got swept away by the undertow, and while trying to find Dory, kids learned about ocean currents.

In the Aerospace Engineering activity, the scenario began with, “We’ve searched the entire ocean! Why don’t we try searching the sky?” Then mother-daughter teams designed a plane some characters could use to search for Dory. One caveat: since the characters are fish, they have to stay underwater, which is heavy; so the planes had to have weights taped to them and still fly.

A local middle school student, Olivia, tries out the prototype they made for the engineering design challenge.

In the Computer Science Engineering activity, the scenario was that Dory needs to choose between Destiny and Bailey to help her to find her way. So girls used a logic model, similar to what might be used in computer science, to decide.

For the final activity, the kids helped Dory, who was playing hide and seek with her mom and dad, to find them. So the teams used electrical engineering concepts to make a spinning Dory so she could look for her parents.

Even the design challenge for the day was to help Dory. Teams were to build some kind of device or machine that could help Dory get from the “tank” she was trapped in and back into the “ocean.”

Exposure to the different engineering disciplines was one of the main reasons several of the mothers brought their daughters to the event. According to Julia Wertin, one local mom explains why she brought her daughter Olivia to Mommy, Me, and SWE:

“I wanted her to get exposed to all of the different things that you could do in engineering. I don’t know much about engineering. I used to work as an architectural drafter, so I know there’s a lot of opportunities for engineers in a lot of different areas—construction, transportation. Just a lot of different kinds of things that you can go into. I just wanted her to see all the different things.”

(Left to right) Gianna Williams and her daughter Kady work on their design challenge.

Another local Mom, Gianna Williams, says participating in Mommy, Me, and SWE is now a mother-daughter tradition in her family:
“I came about two years ago with my oldest daughter, and it was a blast. It was nice getting all the information, learning about the different fields of engineering and what girls can do in the same field.”
So this year, she brought her daughter Kady, who thinks engineering might be a possibility down the road. “Yes, it’s interesting,” she admits. “I would like to learn more about it.”

(Left to right) Carolyn Bartalotta and her daughter Mia, who participated in Mommy, Me, and SWE for their second year in a row..

Attending for the second year in a row was local mom, Carolyn Bartalotta and her daughter Mia. “We attended with our friends last year for the first time,” Bartalotta explains, “and we really enjoyed it. So my support for my daughter is to get her exposed as much as I can to see what she really enjoys.”

Does Mia have any tendencies that might make her a good engineer down the road? Mom says yes!

“She likes to build things,” Bartalotta explains. “She likes to take things apart. The first thing that pops into my head is a little mouse that we had that was broken. I was about to throw it away, and she snatched it out of my hands and said, ‘This is my next project to see why it’s not working.’ So it’s sitting in her closet to see what will happen. She just likes building, so we’ll see what happens.”

A local youngster does an electrical engineering hands-on activity during Mommy, Me, and SWE.

Mia wasn’t the only middle schooler who had the potential to blossom into an engineer. SWE’s Co-Outreach Coordinator Abbie Gerth believes there were several future engineers among the youngsters, and loved that the moms were enjoying it too. “That’s one of the coolest things about this event,” she acknowledges, “is that you get to see the moms learn alongside with their daughters. It’s really a bonding experience for them and it’s something really cool to see as a volunteer for this event. We hope that they’ll continue following their passions.”

Mommy, Me, and SWE leaders: Chelsea Wong, Megan Fox, Abbie Gerth, and Katie Douglas

Gerth believes the outreach was a success: “The girls were really engaged in the activities in the morning. They seemed to understand what was going on, and they got a lot out of the activities,” she says.

Mommy, Me, and SWE chair Chelsea Wong also believes that participating in SWE’s outreach had a positive impact on the participants who were not only “exposed to engineering and the different fields that there are,” but she also believes they learned, “how creativity and innovation is so important in anything that they do.”

A local middle school student, Olivia, tries out the prototype they made for the engineering design challenge.

Wong participated in the event to have a positive impact on the community.

“I really wanted to be involved in a large-scale event that really could make a difference in the community. A lot of the kids that showed up today and their parents are all from the community, and definitely being able to see young children who are interested in doing STEM and different engineering disciplines is awesome…Being able to be an impact in their lives in this way and being able to motivate them into doing engineering is just awesome.

Like Gerth, Wong believes she also saw a number of future engineers. A lot of them are so creative in thinking. Even as fourth graders to sixth graders, they know about all these different ideas that I don’t even think I knew about in fourth grade.”

She was also excited to give the middle schoolers the kind of exposure to engineering that she wishes she had had at that age.

“It’s awesome!" Wong exclaims. "I wish I had that when I was younger…I feel like back in the day, there was not that much STEM for females, not as much exposure as there is now. In elementary school and middle school, I never heard, ‘Do you want to be an engineer?’ as a young fourth grader. I think it’s awesome that these girls have this opportunity.”

An engineering student (top right) works with a team of youngsters to test the prototype they made during the design challege.

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

For additional I-STEM web articles about SWE, see:

More: K-6 Outreach , SWE, Women in STEM, 2016

Teammates test their design prototype to get Dory back into the ocean during the Mommy, Me, and SWE design challenge.