SWE’s Engineering Exploration Outreach Lives Up to Its Name

Introductory slide at Engineering Exploration regarding what engineering is and some of its disciplines.
Introductory slide at Engineering Exploration regarding what engineering is and some of its disciplines.

March 2, 2021

“What is engineering?” This is one question SWE Illinois sought to answer during its virtual Engineering Exploration outreach on Saturday, February 20, 2021. Their simple explanation was: “It’s the application of science and math to solve problems.” Their bit-more-in-depth exploration of this question included introducing the 77 middle school participants to several engineering disciplines and what engineers in these fields do. Sponsored by the Illinois chapter of Society of Women Engineers (SWE), with the assistance of other engineering students, the outreach taught the younger students briefly about a few disciplines; led them in some related hands-on activities; and showed them that engineers can come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and ethnicities.

To recruit the 77 youngsters, SWE organizers first compiled a list comprised of schools in their hometowns, as well as past SWE event participants, then sent out a ton of emails, inviting prospective participants to sign up on a Google form. The organizers recall that responses really flew in; admitting that they hadn't expected to get as many participants as they did, they claim it worked out really well.

The 77 sixth through eighth graders who participated in the event weren’t just from Illinois; because of the event’s virtual nature, students from out of state, including Colorado and Washington, were also able to participate. In fact, 137 folks participated in all, including 38 student volunteers, plus the five SWE leaders who organized and administrated the event.

While the February 2021 edition of Exploring Engineering was similar to many past SWE outreaches, it was also unique in several ways. For instance, it was SWE’s first gender inclusive outreach. “In the past, all of our outreach events have been targeted towards young girls in STEM,” reports one event co-chair Michaela Patton. She explains that SWE Illinois has a new gender diversity initiative called HeForSWE, which seeks to promote male allies within SWE; thus, there were not only male volunteers, but boys took part in the event as well. In fact, organizers didn't actually ask students their gender when they were signing up. “We just wanted it to be for anyone—whoever wants to come,” explains another event co-chair, Lauren Schissler, regarding the number of male vs female students who participated. “So, we don't have an exact number, but it was about even; there was a good mix.”

The outreach began with brief introductions: the SWE leaders who organized the event shared their year in school and major. MC-ing the event were the three Engineering Exploration Co-Chairs: Michaela Patton, a Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) sophomore; Lauren Schissler, a CEE junior; and Toma Solovey, a junior in Chemical Engineering, along with the two SWE Outreach Co-Officers: Christina Garcia and Abby Hutter, both CEE sophomores.

Image of the Delorean with its Flux Capacitor featured in the <em>Back to the Future</em> movies.
Image of the Delorean with its Flux Capacitor featured in the Back to the Future movies.

The theme for the day was the 1985 classic movie, Back to the Future, with its engineering feat that enabled time travel: the flux capacitor (which used garbage as fuel). Not only did the movie’s musical score crop up from time to time during events, but the time travel theme was underscored in both the initial ice-breaker and the hands-on activities.

For instance, they “traveled back” to around 1900–1945 to explore Milk Plastic, the predominant plastic used in that time period. This involved pouring vinegar into hot milk, separating the curds, then kneading them, followed by making specific shapes, then letting them harden into plastic. The second time period they “traveled” to was the 1960’s for an intro to early computers and a Fun With Sorting activity which familiarized participants with the basic principles related to how computers work. Finally, participants “traveled” to 1981 for Fizzy Nano, where they explored the speed of the chemical reaction when dissolving a whole Alka Seltzer tablet vs a crushed one (the crushed one won by a significant margin.) The final activity was an engineering design challenge: to see who could build the tallest tower using a deck of cards, tape, and popsicle sticks.

A clip on a video shown to participants demonstrating how to make Milk Plastic.
A clip of a video shown to participants demonstrating how to make Milk Plastic.

SWE organizers started planning for the outreach in December. For instance, in preparation, they held three mandatory informational sessions to walk volunteers through how to troubleshoot anything; that way, volunteers, who might not have done the experiments themselves, would still be able to answer kids’ questions and walk them through how to finish the project. Plus, they planned and sent out a minute-by-minute schedule, which, according to Toma, kept the event running in a timely fashion.

“I know all three of us spent a lot of time on. So, I think it partially went well because of that, I think it kept everyone organized." Plus, though she and her cohorts hadn't tried out the activities themselves, she says they'd “found videos online of some other people doing the activities, just so we could be sure that it was going to work, and someone had done this successfully before.”

One activity participants did in their breakout rooms was to play a sorting game to help them understand how computers work via algorithms.
One activity participants did in their breakout rooms was to play a sorting game to help them understand how computers work via algorithms.

The team of SWE folks putting on this outreach encountered a number of challenges due to COVID-19. One, of course, was the venue. For example, many past SWE outreach events this reporter has covered were held in Loomis Lab (the Physics Building), which has a convenient suite of lecture rooms large enough to accommodate all of the participants, plus smaller classrooms perfect for the hands-on breakout sessions by discipline. Given that in-person, face-to-face activities were not possible, Zoom provided online, face-to-face encounters, both in the main room and the breakout rooms, and a chat feature which facilitated texting in addition to turning one’s microphone on and speaking to the group.

Another challenge was that unlike SWE’s in-person events in the past, when participants could walk into the breakout room, sit down at a table, and be handed the materials they’d need for the hands-on activity, for an on-line, virtual event with participants scattered all over the state, even the nation, the logistics of sending not just the students, but the volunteers, the packet of materials they would need to complete the hands-on activities and the final design challenge was a huge undertaking. A further challenge, of course, was devising hands-on activities that could adequately be explained/demonstrated via the internet.

Introduction to the last activity of the day, the engineering design challenge: building a tower.

However, Garcia and Hutter have become quite adept at figuring out the vagaries of kids, internet activities, and how to make Zoom events exciting. Given that this was their third online virtual event, Garcia says the two “ went through trial and error …so what we figured out...is that kids need an incentive to show up to the Zoom event.” So, for their second, Dads for Daughters, they sent a supply kit. Receiving something in the mail "was an incentive, because they’d just received all of these random materials. So, it was kind of that mystery of, ‘What am I supposed to do with all of these materials now?’” The package of mystery goodies implied, “Come to the Zoom event, and you'll find out, and see the amazing STEM activities we have planned.” So, the kids did.

Hutter made numerous trips to the post office, “I think I went like four to five times,” she admits. Luckily, all the packages got sent out by February 1st, except for maybe a handful, and beat the last-minute rush (plus the horrible weather the nation had the week before the event). All but two or three participants received the packages; those who had to buy their own materials were reimbursed.

Busy engineering students working toward their own hopes and dreams, why did the planners take part of their Saturday to help with Engineering Exploration, much less all the planning and organizing they’ve been doing since December 2020? And why are they so passionate about outreach? Following, several of the SWE leaders share their goals for the future and why they’re passionate about outreach.

Engineering Exploration Co-Chair Christina Garvia. (Image courtesy of Christina Garvia.)
SWE Outreach Co-Officer Christina Garcia. (Image courtesy of Christina Garcia.)

Christina Garcia, who’s interested in working in the construction and design area, would definitely love to continue SWE-type outreach once she’s in industry. “I know that there are a lot of outreach initiatives done within companies, so whatever I end up doing in my engineering career within the industry, I would love to still be involved in outreach.” In fact, her goal is to hopefully one day create a nonprofit organization.

Why is she so passionate about outreach? She reports “It's just knowing that you made an impact on someone. Personally, for me growing up, there weren't many STEM outreach initiatives within my community. I didn't really learn about engineering until my senior year of high school. And so, I think it's really important for young kids to have exposure to this, especially low-income and minority students.”

In fact, Garcia reports that when sending out info about the event to middle schools, they tried to target certain demographics of children and to find schools that didn't have STEM programs, “because we want them to have this opportunity as well, especially right now that everything's online.” That was one reason they tried to expand outside of Illinois, because the virtual platform was a really good opportunity to interact with kids they normally might not be able to interact with.

“So, for me, it's knowing that even if they don't feel like, ‘Oh, engineering is what I want to do,’ at least they know what engineering is and are able to grasp some of the basic concepts and take that with them throughout their educational journey.”

According to SWE Outreach Co-Officer Abby Hutter, when doing outreach events with local middle schools during the pandemic, she and Garcia have realized that because some classes are only 25 minutes long, schools struggle with time for kids to do experiments. “Especially in middle school,” she explains, “that's when a lot of students realize, ‘Oh, being in a lab or having science class can actually be really fun!’ So, they don't have that this year, which I think is really important for us as a university and as a SWE section with a ton of resources to be able to offer this experience to these students.” Her hope is that kids don't enter high school totally uninterested in STEM just because the pandemic ruined their experience and their first interaction in a science lab.

Engineering Exploration Co-Chair Toma Solovey during the Engineering Exploraion Zoom session.
Engineering Exploration Co-Chair Toma Solovey during the Engineering Exploraion Zoom session.

Referring to it being SWE’s first time to have both female and male participants, Toma Solovey adds that it’s “really important for middle schoolers to see representation of people, of all genders and all races, and just see that an engineer doesn't have a specific way that they need to look.”

However, Solovey does have a specific way that she wants to look as an engineer once she gets out into a real-world job. She’s “really excited to get to wear a hardhat and coveralls. That's one of the best parts of the job.” Besides the accoutrements, she’s also “really excited to get to work at a chemical plant and be hands-on with all of the equipment.” As part of her job, she’d also love to come back to recruit at colleges “I feel that'd be really cool. It's like outreach, but with people that are college age, so they're really considering what they want to be doing after college. And I think I'd be really good at convincing them what's really fun about the job…I'm just really excited to be an engineer.”

On the subject of outreach, Solovey also believes it’s important that younger students “be able to interact with people that are a little bit closer to their age and have gone through that same interest in STEM and interest in engineering and kind of see where you can end up and what you can be doing.” She adds that that’s “really cool for people that are young and trying to figure out what they want to be doing with their lives.”

Lauren Schissler
Engineering Exploration Co-Chair Lauren Schissler.

Another co-chair, Lauren Schissler, who’d someday like a career incorporating both structural engineering and material science, says, “I chose to study civil engineering because I liked the idea of big projects that really impact people's lives and can improve the quality of life for people in whatever way that might be,” adding that she’d like to “hopefully accomplish some really cool things along the way.”

Schissler wanted to convey this notion to students through their outreach: “‘If you're interested in STEM, you can do STEM. You can be an engineer, or you can pursue whatever you're interested in.’ So, I hope that through Engineering Exploration, they learned a little bit about engineering, and even if they're not sure what they want to do, that's totally fine. But just knowing that it's something you can do. You don't have to have some special skill; you’ll gain the skills that you need. And if you're interested, then engineering is for you.”

Engineering Exploration Co-Chair Michaela Patton. (Image courtesy of Michaela Patton.)
Engineering Exploration Co-Chair Michaela Patton. (Image courtesy of Michaela Patton.)

Michaela Patton indicates that her main reason for doing outreach and specifically this event is because she really enjoys working with kids in general. “I've had some previous experiences where I got to work with this age specifically,” she admits, “and I just have a passion for teaching and working with kids in something that I specialize in. So, it was just a great way to combine my interests in the field, as well as working with kids. You can't really teach kids at that age engineering quite yet—they're not going to be learning in engineering classes as for college—but it was a great way to give an introduction and then also interact with them."

Regarding her dream job, Patton is also really interested in teaching in the future. She wants to go into industry first in civil engineering construction management to get a couple of years of experience and then go back to school and get a PhD and pursue being a professor. “I really want to be engaged with teaching because that's really my passion, is just to teach. I decided to go for the college age and some of the high school…but yeah, I want to be a professor one day.”

Like Patton, Abby Hutter hopes to eventually teach. Her dream job is to enter the civil engineering industry for maybe 10 to 15 years, then afterwards teach high school science and work there until she retires. “I really, really love teaching kids and inspiring them. I think high school is such an integral or an essential age, for so many kids to be encouraged to go to school or continue their education in college or wherever, whatever they want to do. But I think that age group is really important. I’d love to teach a class one day.”

One of the introductory slides introducing SWE's officers and co-chairs administrating Engineering Exploration...in this case, Outreach Co-Officer Abby Hutter.
One of the introductory slides introducing SWE's officers and Engineering Exploration co-chairs...in this case, Abby Hutter.

So, how’d Engineering Exploration go? What kind of impact did the organizers feel it had? “I think it was amazing,” says Hutter, who admits that they were worried because of the Zoom difficulties that had cropped up at past events. But everybody participating in the outreach made it to their breakout rooms, which has been an issue. “Outreach is experience,” she claims, acknowledging that kids seemed to really enjoy breakout rooms because they could interact in the chat, be funny, and actually have productive things to say. “I think it just makes it a lot more interactive,” she explains, adding that shy kids who didn’t want to say anything or share their screen were still able to participate, but not feel left out because others might not be sharing their video or talking as much.

“So, I think it was a really great experience,” Hutter concludes. “And we also had a ton of volunteers within either SWE or other students in the College of Engineering here. So, overall, it was a wonderful event. And I would just want to, again, thank our wonderful chairs for making it so successful.”

Engineering Exploration participant exhibits the tower they built as part of the engineering challenge related to Civil Engineering.
An Engineering Exploration participant exhibits the tower they built as part of the engineering challenge related to Civil Engineering.

Regarding technical difficulties, Christina Garcia mentioned that those who had issues were really quick to just hop back onto the zoom call and get back into the activities right away, “which showed that they were actually enjoying the event,” she explains, because they didn't just give up. She also addresses the kids being very interactive within the chat. “You could see that everybody was having a good time, making jokes with each other on who has the best breakout group and leader. Some people made jokes about having too much fun when making the milk plastic.”

As Garcia indicated, the young people appeared to be having fun doing the various activities, especially making the Milk Plastic, which seemed to be a big hit. For instance, in one breakout room, one kid, while kneading the milk plastic, kept saying, “This is so cool. This is so cool!” Michaela Patton shares a quote that she highlighted from the Zoom chat which Christina mentioned above. “One of the boys said, ‘I think I'm having too much fun with this plastic!’ Then someone else said, ‘It feels strangely good.’ So, I guess they were very interested in how it felt. And I thought those were funny comments from the day.”

Regarding that activity, Toma Solovey reports: “Yeah. I kind of selfishly chose the milk plastic activity because I wanted to do it. I've heard about it before, and it seemed really fun. So, I decided it would be good for the kids to do.”

Hutter and her cohorts were grateful for the financial assistance SWE was able to provide: “I really appreciate SWE as a whole for being able to offer the resources to hold this event. This event costs a lot.” She didn’t know the comparison between an in-person year or a virtual year, and while some might think virtual is a lot cheaper, sending out the packages of materials was expensive. “So, I just wanted to mention how grateful that all of us are for SWE.”

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

More: 6-8 Outreach, 8-12 Outreach, Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, Women in STEM, 2021

For additional I-STEM web articles about SWE and its outreach events, see:

A time travel icebreaker participants began the event with once in the breakout rooms.
A time travel icebreaker participants began the event with once in the breakout rooms.