A Week of Wonder – A Wonderful Week With AAUW TechTrek

IMG_1499Sixty rising 8th grade girls descended on New Mexico Tech last Saturday to spend a week exploring STEM at Tech Trek New Mexico, a free week-long residential camp supported by the AAUW.      For many of these girls, it was their first extended stay away from home.   For all of them, it was their first opportunity to attend a STEM camp.   They all seemed to be filled with a mixture of equal parts nervous anticipation and excitement.  I would have to say those feelings were shared by the all-female faculty and staff who greeted them.

I was one of the core class teachers for the camp.    I have taught engineering classes at summer camps for about five years, but this was my first chance to do so for a group that was entirely female.    It was something I have always wanted to do   As  a high school student, I had attended several STEM camps and had really great experiences but the camps had always included both males and females.   It was inevitable in those environments that things surrounding gender stereotypes would always arise.   I was curious to see how things would change when the room was completely filled with women and girls.

Core Classes 

Each day, the girls spent the morning in a core-class.   The girls were sorted into core-classes based on their stated preferences before camp started and then spent the entire week exploring a central theme in that class.

  • Stellar Explorations – The students in this class explored stellar systems by creating models and engaging in simulations.
  • Cyber Security – The students in this class learned how information is translated into a binary system, how to encode/decode information using a Caesar Cypher, and about safe internet use practices.   They also created Women in White Hats – a group of young women who hack for good.   They learned how to evaluate cyber security on a web site.
  • App Invention – The students in this class used a platform developed by MIT to create a functioning app for an android device.
  • Motorized Toys – The students in this class responded to an RFP for a motorized toy.   They built an understanding of gear ratios, measured/analyzed the performance of motorized simple and compound gear trains speed and rim force),  measured/analyzed rim force on different sized gears, calculated torque, and determined what type of gear ratios will yield different performance results.   They then designed/built a motorized toy to meet the criteria outlined in the RFP.   After completing a testing cycle to ensure performance criteria were met, they presented their proposals.
  • Robotics – Students in this class learned how to build and program a robot that would track a line.   Next, they added an arm to the robot that would carry a ping pong ball.   They were challenged to program their robot to track a course and conclude by depositing the ping pong ball in a box.


Students spent their afternoons attending workshops.   Each workshop was an hour and a half, enabling them to attend two different workshops each afternoon.   They had workshops on a wide array of topics. Each of these workshops was taught/facilitated by a female technical professional.

  • Photonic Cooking
  • Science Writing
  • Weather
  • Optics
  • Ozobotswi
  • Nanotechnology
  • Physiology
  • Electricity & Magnetism
  • Music with Raspberry Pi
  • Water
  • Rocks & Fossils
  • The social life of pennies


Evenings were filled with fun and further exploration.   Monday, the girls had a pool party.   Those girls who did not want to swim stayed at the dorm and played board games.   Tuesday, the girls split into two groups.   Half of them went to the Mineral Museum and half of them  learned about Ham Radios.   Wednesday, the girls attended a dinner with professional women in STEM and had the opportunity to talk to them about their work.   Thursday was a repeat of Tuesday with the girls switching to the activity they did not attend earlier in the week.   Friday was movie night.

A Week of Wonder

Everywhere I turned, all week long, I was filled with wonder at so many young women actively engaged in STEM.

  •   Girls were solving problems, analyzing things, creating things.    They were thinking at the highest levels  on Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • Girls were building knowledge and experience that will help to level the playing field with their male counterparts in the future.


  • Girls were demonstrating extraordinary competence in STEM.    In my motorized toy class, two of the groups demonstrated the most innovative solutions to the challenge I have seen among students  in the last five years with this project.  One of those groups created an axle by stringing together wire in order to create a three-wheeled vehicle to reduce weight and improve performance.    They are the only group that has ever been able to create a toy that would travel 3 m in 3 s, climb a 1 meter course at a 15 degree slope in less than 2 s, and also climb a 20 degree slope.


  • Girls were defying stereotypical thinking  about girls in STEM and building a foundation of self-efficacy that will serve them well.
  • Girls  were actively engaging with female role-models, making it a little easier to see themselves in roles usually held by men.

I think one of the girls summed it up best when she responded to the question of what she liked best.   She said, “getting to be with other girls who are just like me.”   Being a girl who likes math and science can sometimes be a lonely place.   This week, the world got a little bigger for each of these girls and that is a wonderful thing.

As I reflect on the week, I see so many ways that the camp worked to address the variables for women’s success in engineering and computing.   In the AAUW report,Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing the research speaks to the need to combat stereotypes and biases, the need to emphasize social relevance,  and the need to cultivate a sense of belonging.   It also addresses what needs to be done by the various stakeholders.    I think the section for educators is particularly relevant.

  • Emphasize that engineering and computing skills are learned, rather than innate.   Practicing and developing skills are part of the process, as is persistence.
  • Adversity is a common experience to everyone.   It should not signal to a student that she does not belong.
  • Students should be taught about the effects of stereotype threat in order to reduce their effects.  (Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, a Stanford professor addresses the impacts of stereotype on academic performance – it impacts high achievers the most-and should be a must read for every educator).
  • Give a broad range of students exposure to computer science.
  • Highlight the broad applications of computer science and engineering.
  • Highlight the ways in which engineering and computer science help people.  (Many young women are drawn to the idea of making the world a better place).
  • Provide opportunities for girls to interact with women and men with whom they can identify in engineering/computing.
  • Create a welcoming environment for girls in math, science, and engineering.
  • Provide opportunities for girls to tinker and build confidence and interest in design and computing.

One Regret…

Roughly one fourth of the girls who applied to this camp were admitted.   The applicants who were not accepted were well-qualified, but only a certain number could be accommodated.   The AAUW and other sponsors were incredibly generous in their support of the camp.   I am thankful for all that they did to support STEM education for girls. I just wish that every girl could have this kind of experience.


Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention – #ILookLikeAnEngineer

Necessity is the mother of invention.   Unfortunately, the “necessity” can be all too easily forgotten as an essential component in education.    I teach what I teach, in part, out of necessity but it is my necessity not that of my students.   I need to teach the curriculum that I teach because it aligns with the standards set forth by the state but it is not a burning necessity for my students no matter how many times I tell them the essential questions and how they will use it in the future.   Knowing something only becomes a burning necessity in the mind of an eleven year old when they see a need to know it so they can do something they want right now.

So how do we create that need to know?   I think we give kids real problems that they really want to solve.   It’s not something that I can do every day, but I try really hard to find time and space to do it every year.   To do this, I  compact lessons and I accelerate where I can.   This year, I managed to squeeze out almost a month at the end of the year to do an engineering project with my students.

Request For Proposal

Students were presented with a Request For Proposal (RFP) from a fake toy company.    The proposal indicated that this fake toy company was seeking to expand market share to include more girls in their customer base for motorized toys.    The toy company wanted those bidding on the contract to conduct market research and build a toy to meet that need.    The toy company indicated that the toy must meet one of three different criteria:  travel 3 m in 3 s, climb 1 m at a 15 degree slope in 2 s, or climb 1 m at a 30 degree slope.

Creating a Team and Conducting Market Research

Students were assigned teams and formed mini-companies that would bid on the RFP.   They created a team name, logo, and slogan.   Then, they conducted customer surveys with both adults and children in the target age range.    They analyzed the data and determined the type of toy the customer was seeking.

Building Technical Knowledge

ChJmkKSUkAEA9Q-During the same time-frame, students built knowledge of how gear trains work.   They began by building gears on a frame and exploring relationships between the rotations of the gears and the number of teeth on the gears (gear ratios, teeth ratios).   Next, they added a motor and wheels so that they could calculate the rate on a 3 m course and measure the rim force on the wheel.   They repeated this process with gear ratios ranging from 1:3 up to 225:1.   As they did this, they were building important skill in construction as well as an understanding of the different kinds of performance they might expect from different kinds of gear ratios.    From there, they measured rim force on the tooth of a gear connected to the motor.    They did so for different sized gears and then learned how to calculate torque.    With this knowledge, they could explain why certain gear ratios would not move and why certain gear ratios would be well-suited to climbing.   At this point, they had built sufficient knowledge to answer the first stages of that burning question of how to build a toy that would meet each of the criteria.

Making a Prototype

Each team began construction of a basic prototype to meet their desired criteria.   This amounted to attaching the motor and the desired gear train along with the wheels on the frame structure.   Students then tested their motorized frame to see if it met the criteria.   Once they had a basic working prototype, they started constructing a body to give the toy the desired aesthetics.    As they constructed the body, they continued to test the toy to make sure the additional weight did not place them out of compliance with the criteria in the RFP.    They repeated tests multiple times and used median values in order to eliminate outlier trials resulting from poor testing technique.

Sealing the Deal – Writing a Written Proposal and Giving an Oral Presentation


When the toy was completed, each team wrote a written report in response to the RFP and prepared an oral presentation.   The final stage of the project required each team to present their toy to a panel of judges representing the fake toy company.   I recruited 3 engineers and a soon-to-be lawyer to represent both the technical and business interests of the company for the panel of judges.   (I am lucky enough to have Sandia National Laboratories nearby and willing to provide this kind of support to encourage excellence in math and science.)   The judges selected a winning team based on the presentation and a demonstration of the toy.   (The winning team members each got a gift card to Cold Stone Creamery).

While this last stage is not “math”, it is very much a part of what engineers do and I wanted my students to appreciate the importance of being able to communicate effectively as an engineer.  Reading, writing, and speaking are just as much essential skills for an engineer as are math and science mastery

Why It Mattered

  • Students got to experience the engineering process, which is so much more powerful than hearing about it.
  • Girls had to learn how to make something and how to make it work.   It’s not that they are any less adept, but many of them are much less experienced.   This results in a certain amount of hesitancy, initially,   Having to make it work pushes them past this hesitancy and they discover just how good they are at it.    Giving girls this experience and confidence is important in leveling the playing field when it comes to engineering.
  • Students used the math that they have learned this year to do something real that mattered to them (finding unit rates, conducting surveys, making data representations, analyzing data to make decisions, finding medians, using equations to calculate torque, measuring radii).
  • Students had to find ways to work together – teams could not shift part way through the month long project.
  • Students who lacked confidence as speakers learned that public speaking is a learned skill and that you get better at it with practice.   (I made each team do a dry run of their presentation in front of their classmates and get feedback the day before the final presentations.  They took the feedback and were so much better the second day.)

Gallery of Toys


A Smile A Day – Life in Sixth Grade

“Can we copyright this?”

All of the teams in the motorized toy challenge had discovered that nothing is free.   Each element they added to the body of their toy had an impact on its performance.   One of the teams took this knowledge to a whole new level.   They decided to build a toy with only three wheels.   When it worked, naturally, every other group in the room seized upon the idea.   One of them took off not one, but two wheels.   Surprisingly, it worked and it went pretty fast.

Then, the quest for “ownership” of the idea began.


I suspect that I have some future entrepreneurs in this class.  In the meantime, they make me smile.



The Machine Awakes – Making Connections to Bring Learning to Life

I have always been a math/science person.   In school, my electives generally reflected that.   I used them to squeeze in more math and science classes wherever I could.   The arts were a gaping hole in my education.   I have never taken an art class.   I  play the piano poorly.    It’s not that I don’t appreciate the arts.   I just never felt like I had any particular talent in that area so I didn’t really pursue them.   I had a fixed mindset with regard to the arts long before I knew what a fixed mindset was.    I’m trying to expand my thinking, and have been looking for ways to connect math to the arts.

A few months ago, I approached our band director about the possibility of creating a cross-curricular event focusing on machines.      The music department was “all in”.   The art teacher and a science teacher also agreed to be part of the event.

We held the event last night.    Here is a quick snapshot of the night.


As visitors arrived, they were able to peruse an exhibit of student work relating to machines in the lobby.   Tables displayed instruments created by band students.

Simple machines created by art students were also on display.


The exhibit also displayed roller coasters created by science students.


As visitors perused the exhibit, they were serenaded by various small ensembles from the band.

Video Game Expo

After seeing the exhibits in the lobby, visitors proceeded to the computer labs where they played student-created video games.   These were games that I had my students create in February as part of joint Math-Social Studies project.   For the project, students could work individually or with a partner to create a video game about one of the ancient civilizations about which they had learned in Social Studies.   The game had to include at least three levels:  one level focusing on the civilization’s geography, one level focusing on the civilization’s religion, and one level focusing on the civilization’s history.


Motorized Toys

Visitors could then see demonstrations of student-created motorized toys.   These are toys that I have my students designing, building and testing as part of an engineering project.    This has been a way to introduce students to the engineering process, going from receipt of a Request for Proposal to a final written proposal and oral presentation before a panel of judges.     The project has allowed students to use math in very real ways as they have explored different gear ratios and calculated unit rates to determine if the toy was meeting the speed requirement specified in the RFP.



Finally, visitors attended the final band performance of the year.    Their focus piece for the evening was Machines Take Flight.


So would I do this again?   In a heartbeat.   The process was a great experience for students as they tied related ideas together in so many different ways.   It was also a great way to bring our community into our school.

From a strictly math perspective, I think this was incredibly valuable for my students.    They had to take an unframed problem and create a framework for solving it.   They had to apply the things they knew about ratios and rates in a real context.   Some of them had a hard time seeing how to do the ratios or the rates in such an open context.   Forcing them to do so, to figure out what to do and how to do it outside of a math problem was so good for them.   Giving girls the chance to build something real and figure out how to make it work was so powerful.   They went from hesitant to confident.   They will not be as hesitant the next time.