Middle School Girls Discover Engineering Is Fun During SWE’s Round Robin

A Round Robin participant places LED lights into her team’s breadboard.

March 6, 2019

Nine 5th through 7th grade girls showed up on Saturday, February 23rd, for Engineering Round Robin, hosted by the Illinois chapter of Society of Women Engineers (SWE). The idea was to pique the girls’ interest in engineering by exposing them to some of the different engineering disciplines, plus to serve as role models for them to show them that girls can be engineers too.

A participant tests the battery she and her teammates made.

When deciding on which disciplines they would expose the girls to, the organizers went with some of the most common fields of engineering, such as electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering. However, Rose Carroll, the Round Robin coordinator who’s a freshman in agricultural and biological engineering, reports that in previous years, the event had done a lot of civil engineering activities, like bridge building, and she had wanted to change that up a bit. “I wanted to do something different,” she reports, “especially with me being in agricultural and biological engineering. There's not many activities that are incorporated into large-scale events like this.” So she decided that doing a water filtration activity “would be really cool, because it incorporates agricultural engineering and chemical engineering as well.” So the first activity of the day addressed those disciplines, along with environmental engineering.

For the water filtration lab, girls were to design a filtering system inside water bottles, layering some of the available materials, including coffee filters, macaroni, cotton balls, and/or gauze, to filter the dirty water that was poured into the bottle to make it clean. To determine the effectiveness of the girls’ filters, they tested the pH of the dirty water prior to being poured through the filtration labs, then compared it to the pH of filtered water.

Round Robin participants doing the LED light activity.

Sara Shahid, SWE Outreach Committee member; SWE Outreach Coordinator, Simran Vinaik; and Rose Carroll, the 2019 Round Robin coordinator.

The Computer Science/Electrical Engineering activity involved connecting an Arduino to a breadboard then attaching LED lights and using a computer program to make them blink at different speeds.

The third lab, which emphasized Chemical Engineering, involved the girls making their own batteries using vinegar (an electrolyte) and salt (ions), pennies, nickels, aluminum foil, and a paper towel. They first washed the money so it would conduct more readily, then, wetting sections of paper towels, assembled their batteries. To test their batteries, they first used a voltmeter to test the voltage of a small battery, then tested the batteries the girls had built, to see if they were working properly.

For the afternoon’s design contest, the girls designed boats out of cardboard and duct tape, then tested them in a glass tank full of water to see if they would float and keep the water out. Those who did well in the competition won prizes: keychains and conductive ink pens the girls could take home to create a full circuit using the conductive pen to draw one on paper, then connecting a battery or t resistors.

Sara Shahid explains to the girls how to do the battery-building activity.

Above: A Round Robin participant inserts LEDs into their breadboard.

Below: She examines their handiwork.

Not to forget the parents, who were waiting to take their daughters back home, several activities were planned for them as well. For instance, while the girls worked on the final design contest activity, parents attended an informational meeting. According to Sara Shahid, a member of SWE’s outreach committee, “We're going to have a presentation about getting your kid interested in engineering and if they are, what kinds of resources Illinois has to offer that can help them.” She adds that since much of the information available targets high schoolers, parents of middle school students might find it difficult to understand what resources could be beneficial for their children. Plus, the parents stayed around for the design contest judging and the awards ceremony at the end.

Why would busy engineering students devote a Saturday to a bunch of middle school students? Members of the Round Robin planning committee explain why they’re passionate about outreach.

Rose Carroll got involved with SWE outreach because she enjoys working with kids. In the past she’s worked with homeless children and also been involved in a lot of school events. For instance, in grammar school, she helped plan a lot of huge events working with younger kids, such as a wax museum, for which she and her fellow students had to help little kids out with the designs and painting. Plus, she’s done a lot of babysitting. “So I've been experienced, and I've helped kids a lot…I love working with kids. When I found out about the outreach committee, I knew I really wanted to be a part of it so I could volunteer at the same time as helping the little kids.” When she heard about the Round Robin activity, she reports, “I was like ‘Oh, this would be perfect!’ I've never planned a huge event before that's similar to this, so I really wanted to try it out and see what it would be like.”

Another volunteer, Sara Shahid, a freshman majoring in engineering physics and minoring in Computer Science, shares that she got involved in SWE outreach because of the impact it’s had on her personally. For example, she knew she wanted to come to Illinois in engineering when she was in high school, so she did a lot of SWE events, and as a result, developed some long-term relationships with female Illinois engineering students.

“I interacted with some of the upper-classmen when I was in high school,” she recalls. “They've been my mentors. It's really nice to see a lot of women in engineering, and that's why I came to these events, because especially physics engineering, we have very few girls.”

An Illinois Engineering student (left), helps a middle school student program her team’s Arduino.

Sarah Fries and Abby Pakeltis interact with some SWE Round Robin participants.

In fact, she reports that, unlike some of the big departments, like Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering, which have lots of female students, Physics Engineering’s freshman class has about 10 girls.

Shahid indicates that events like Round Robin help to pique young girls’ interest in engineering. “So I just think it's really interesting, and I think it really helps them to get interested in engineering, which is important.” Given the impact on her matriculation to the university, she also believes events like Round Robin can introduce the girls to the university early on. “I think it's nice to expose them to Illinois, especially because it's such a big school, and it's hard to figure out what U of I Engineering is. I think it just increases interest.”

Did she or any of the other SWE Outreach Committee members see any future engineers in the group? Shahid thinks she might have seen a future electrical engineer: “One of those girls was like, ‘Yeah, I already have an Arduino, and I've programmed this before.’ I didn't know what an Arduino was until I started studying this stuff!” she admits.

Simran Vinaik, a sophomore in mechanical engineering and one of SWE’s outreach coordinators, believes she saw a lot of potential engineers. She shares about a chat she had with the girls she was helping to mentor.

"I asked my group, ‘Oh, do you any of you guys have an interest in engineering? Do you know what you want to do?’ And one of the girls was like, ‘Yeah, I really want to do aerospace engineering, and work on space systems and airplanes!’ And then her friends were like, ‘Yeah! I might want to do chemical,’ and ‘I might want to do mechanical.’" Another girl said, "‘Yeah, I think chemical engineering is fun, and this activity was really cool, so that's what I really want to learn about!’ So they were all talking about it!”

Vinaik believes that having all the volunteers explain a bit about their majors at the beginning of the event had an impact on the girls. “So I think when they heard that, that kind of helped them [understand] what each type of specific engineering really means…So that was really cool to see that the girls were stepping up to say what they might want to be in the future!”

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, 2019

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

Above: One team programmed the LEDs on their breadboard to alternately blink green, blue, then red.
Below: One team's battery.

An Illinois Engineering student (left), explains to Round Robin participants how to program their Arduino to make the LED lights flash more quickly.