SCHENECTADY – Using the link between high-tech design and the natural urge to help others, Union College wants to draw more women into the male-dominated world of engineering.
Twenty high school girls are in the second week of a new women's-only engineering summer camp on campus, where they learn about the field by designing electronic toys and communication devices for severely disabled children.
“We focused on something they could embrace immediately,” said Bob Balmer, dean of the Union division of engineering and computer science. “Certainly, I think that for girls of this age and children in need there is a natural affinity.”
Program directors modeled the live-in camp – Educating Girls as Engineers – on Summer Science Workshop, a camp for minority students that Union has hosted for seven years.
Only 10 percent of engineers nationwide are women, said Seena K. Drapala, president of the Capital Region Society of Women Engineers. And while the proportion of women in engineering schools is slowly climbing, it is currently about 20 percent.
In the first few days of the program, counselors brought the girls to Northwoods at Hilltop, a Niskayuna rehabilitation and care facility for the disabled. The girls met some of the children in the pediatric unit, who range in disability from being temporarily weakened by illness to children who have no ability to move.
Therapists told the girls that one of the biggest problems in treating severely immobilized children is that they have no sensory outlets, said Patty Pierce, an occupational therapist at Hilltop.
“Even if I'm just talking, I may be waving my hands in the air, or playing with my hair, or fidgeting, and I can use that to calm me under stress . . . We crave motion,” said Pierce. “But these children can't cope with stress because they can't move. They can't use sensory stimulation to calm themselves.”
Many of the girls designed toys like dolls that make sounds, or vibrate, or are brightly colored.
Drapala said research shows girls gravitate toward jobs with a “social connotation,” where they feel like they can affect people. Since they have so little exposure to engineering at an early age, few girls are attracted to the field. They disqualify themselves by dropping science and math early in their education.
Sixteen-year-old Molly Freeman said that after her visit, she wanted to help a wheelchair-bound 19-year-old Hilltop patient who only had partial use of one arm – enough to communicate using a modified computer keyboard, but not enough to touch his face.
“He was really smart, and it was sad that he couldn't use his intelligence because he was disabled,” said Freeman. “I know how sad he must be that he can't even brush his teeth and he's 19.”
Freeman and her lab partner modified a water bottle and tube to reach from the boy's hand to his face, and created attachments like a toothbrush and washcloth for the tool.
“It won't make him independent, but it will give him something more than what he had,” said Freeman.
In another project, the girls designed and built a device allowing someone who cannot talk to choose from a series of pre-recorded phrases like “I need to use the bathroom,” or “I'm thirsty.”
The device, which they named a “talking box,” would be simpler and less expensive than a dynavox, which is currently used by some disabled people.
In the talking box, the user holds a control panel with several small lights that blink in sequence. Each light corresponds to a phrase. When the user sees the light he wants, he pushes a button and a computer says the phrase.
To make the box, the girls had to learn to wire circuits and create a simple computer program to control them, something most of the girls had never done before.
“At first it seems really hard, but once you do one it's not so bad,” said 16-year old Jessica Donaldson.
Working with the girls, Professor Linda Almstead said having a girls-only class made a world of difference.
“It's important for girls to play with the toys boys play with without the boys butting in and taking over,” said Almstead. “It's not that boys are the enemy, it's just that the girls need a chance to explore these things on their own if they're going to make it their own.”
Standing atop the indoor ski jump ramp 35 feet in the air, Nori Lupfer can observe everything under the big top.
But the 5-foot blonde doesn't notice the thousands of people in the audience clapping and pointing. Their cheers and ahhs of amazement blend with the guitar, trumpets and synthesizer into a barely audible white noise.
All she thinks about is the ramp.
On cue with the music, Lupfer plunges down the soap-and-water-soaked plastic slope and when she reaches the curved lip at the end she takes flight.
The first thing she spots are the glowing overhead lights. Soaring into the upper reaches of the arena while remaining straight as an arrow, Lupfer lets her head drop backward and her feet rotate up. She hangs upside down. Then she notices the yellow trampolines.
Finally, as her legs continue flipping backward, Lupfer emerges right-side-up. She spies her destination — the 5-foot wide white stripe on the black 25-foot-wide air bag.
After three and a half seconds, she sticks the landing.
“When you nail a perfect jump, which isn't that often, the slow motion thing does happen,” said Lupfer, a 21-year-old senior-to-be at Union College. “It's three or four seconds of bliss.”
For people who love to fly (and Lupfer does), being part of a daredevil intro act to the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus is pretty good work, if you can get it. Right now, Lupfer is spending her second summer touring the country as part of the Max-Air Blizzard Battalion.
Natural talent Lupfer started laying the groundwork for a future under the big top when she was 4 years old. Even then she had begun to reveal the interest and talents that would lead her to the circus. She was already taking ballet lessons when her mom, Signe, signed them up for mother-daughter skiing lessons. Lupfer was a natural. A skier was born.
Her love affair with the circus didn't begin until four years later, when she spent her first afternoon with the Big Apple Circus. From the clowns to the acrobats on the trapeze, she loved everything. Lupfer was so awed by the circus that one of her favorite movies growing up in West Lebanon, N.H., was “Big Top Pee-Wee.” Once her younger sister, Kellyn, aware of Nori's fascination, brought home a newspaper ad that asked “Do you want to join the circus?”
“Unfortunately, it was for a season pass,” says Lupfer, feigning disappointment at the punchline.
By 11, Lupfer was a competitive skier who had left the enjoyable but predictable world of alpine downhill and branched out into the creative, no-rules world of freestyle skiing.
“My mom told me that she thought it was a natural with my dancing background, but I was really surprised when my parents jumped on board with the freestyling,” said Lupfer, whose soft voice speeds up when recalling exciting moments.
And so began the nearly three-hour round trip commutes to practice at Nick Preston's camp in Campton, N.H.
As he watched her first front pike flip, Preston knew Lupfer was a special talent. Without any instruction, she had pointed her toes perfectly straight.
“There's a certain kind of body awareness, a coordination that's almost acrobatic,” Preston said.
The world of freestyle skiing breaks down into aerials (high-flying flips, twists and jumps), moguls (racing down bumpy hills) and acro (ballet on skis). While a natural athlete who excelled at aerials, Lupfer's best and favorite event was acro.
Freestyle career As she grew up, the innocent 8-year-old's fantasy of running away and joining the circus gave way to the pressures and commitments required of competitive aerial skiing.
“I just didn't think I ever had anything the circus would take,” said Lupfer.
Lupfer's freestyle career took her as far as Switzerland, where she competed in the junior world championships. But overall, it was a spotty career, according to Preston, who felt that Lupfer wasn't cutthroat enough. Even Lupfer and her parents agreed that the glamour of the performance was more rewarding than the victories.
Nevertheless, when Lupfer was ready to go to Union College in 1999, she hoped to continue competing. After all, she would be relatively close to home and could train during winter break or even miss some classes if necessary.
She made the national team as an acro skier, but since she wasn't willing to put off school, the team said “no dice.” It seemed as though that chapter in her life was closing. So it was off to Schenectady to study visual arts at Union.
Summer 2001, the one between her sophomore and junior years, was supposed to be like any other. Lupfer planned to spend the summer skiing off ramps into lakes and flipping on trampolines with her friends on the U.S. ski team.
But fate tapped her on the shoulder and gave her a shot at the big top.
Invitation to the circus Craig Peterson needed help. The CEO of Max-Air productions — the company which runs the indoor jumping show at the circus — needed some ski jumpers.
So the former world champion aerial skier called his old friend, Nick Preston, who had just the person in mind.
” 'Do you want to join the circus?' It's like, 'Yeah, how'd you know?' Lupfer said.
Nori's father, Greg, thought this was crazy. But the 55-year-old computer consultant trusted his daughter, who, despite her creative nature, was never given to capricious whims. Preston's assurances helped. He realized this was too cool to pass up.
Three days after final exams last June, Lupfer was on a plane to Kentucky to train for two weeks. Then she boarded the circus's train for a 4 1/2 day ride to Tucson, Ariz., where she would debut amid fireworks, lasers, clowns and elephants.
“These shows are usually out there at the fair with the wind blowing and the racing pigs,” Peterson said. “They're not usually out at a traveling Las Vegas-style show.”
But with the thrill of a new experience comes the apprehensions of the untested. Not every competitive jumper can handle the black lights, strobe lights, fireworks and routines cued to music.
“During competition, you wait for the wind, you fix your helmet. Basically, you go when you're ready. In show biz, you go when it's time to go, so that's a big adjustment for athletes,” Peterson said.
“I was worried,” Lupfer says of her first show. She replaced someone who had been injured. “Every one said to me, 'You're going to kill yourself,' she said. “It was like, 'Great, thanks. I can't wait to jump.'
“Would they send me home? Would I get a bloody nose? There were some nerves,” Lupfer wondered.
The first jump In Tucson, the circus was scheduled for a “six pack” — three shows each on Saturday and Sunday. As Lupfer stared down the ramp for her first jump, the 20-foot distance between the ramp and the landing spot on the air bag started to look big.
“I have to make the air bag,” was the only thought racing through her head.
And she did — to thunderous applause and congratulations.
The first four shows were a success, and Lupfer's excitement about fulfilling her dream was swelling. But as her giddiness grew, so did her exhaustion from the intense schedule.
During her fifth show, Lupfer suffered her only serious injury. She over-rotated coming out of her somersault and landed on her upper back, which pushed her chin into her chest. To make a painful situation worse, the momentum kept her legs swinging backward, further driving her face into her sternum.
“I was too tired to control the excitement, and I kissed right between my chest,” said Lupfer, whose bright red lipstick left a mark between her breasts. The crowd oohed, but she ended up in the hospital overnight. Suddenly the warning everyone made before she started seemed a little too real.
Except for a bruise, though, Lupfer was fine and she continued the rest of the summer living the life of a performer/cultural ambassador/tourist.
Life as a sardine The living quarters cars on the circus train contain eight separate 8-foot-by-10-foot rooms.
“It's like a jail cell,” said Peterson, who was worried about having to sell that aspect of circus life to Lupfer. “Telling someone they're going to live in something smaller than a dorm room wasn't an easy task. But rent is only $10 a week.”
When you're making a $1,000 a week, the cramped conditions aren't a problem, said Lupfer, who used some of her money to buy a digital camera. So for two months in summer 2001, while her friends were going through the daily grind of training for skiing competitions, Lupfer was living in a box in a railroad car, learning new cultures and “flying” above cities all over the Southwest and West Coast.
“The Russians were the trapeze artists. The Brazilians were the dancers. And there were others from Mexico, and others from Eastern Europe,” said Lupfer, who can say “good,” “bad,” and “Hi, how are you?” in Russian.
While she still speaks fondly of her friends in the freestyle skiing world, Lupfer said that the family vibe of the circus was a welcome change. With the primary goal being to wow the audience, everyone cheers for everyone else in the circus and never has reason to take joy in a colleague's failure.
On the competitive skiing circuit, a group of five or six usually tight-knit freestylers are often all in the running for one or two spots on the team and some tensions between friends cannot be avoided.
Long histories At the circus, many of Lupfer's fellow performers are former gymnasts and athletes in their native countries and have long family histories of their particular circus skill, Lupfer said.
“The Russians are training their kids from the time they're walking,” said Lupfer, noting that one 8-month-old was already being trained as an acrobat.
One of the most rewarding aspects of living in the circus is sharing in each other's heritages, Lupfer said. It's something that has made her father, who has seen the show 11 times, jealous.
“I lived through the Cold War,” Greg Lupfer said. “My generation was taught to hate the Russians. To me, these people were slightly less unfamiliar than Martians. But Nori has had the true experience. She is better suited to live in the world than I ever was.”
And if spending one summer getting paid to fulfill a childhood dream and learn about other cultures while traveling around the country had been the sum total of her circus experience, Lupfer would have been elated beyond words.
But then Craig Peterson got desperate.
New dilemma It was a Friday night last January and the Lupfers were just returning from vacation in Florida.
On their answering machine was a message from Craig Peterson, Nori's former circus boss. One of his troupe had just departed for the winter to compete in the high-flying outdoor jumping circuit. He needed a replacement.
Would she be interested in ditching the winter trimester of her junior year to run back to the circus?
“Absolutely,” she thought to herself. But there were other variables to consider.
Dad had already paid the nonrefundable tuition for the trimester. However, when he saw Nori's eyes light up, he knew they had to find a way.
So that night Lupfer tracked down Union College Dean of Students Frederick Alford's home phone number and laid out the situation. Lupfer was ahead of schedule to graduate in June 2003, so she wouldn't fall behind.
“He said that school's always going to be there, but the circus isn't,” Greg Lupfer remembered.
And with that it was a break from term papers, finals and cram sessions and another chance to dazzle audiences with back layout somersaults and see her new friends.
By Christmas, Lupfer was performing in San Diego, one of more than a dozen cities she'd visit in the next three months. For their New Year, the Russians cooked everyone a huge feast of caviar, meat, potatoes, chicken skin, pork legs and an odd jelly made of pig ears.
“They want you to understand how great their culture is. They bring you this huge plate which you are expected to eat,” said Nori, who confessed to sneakily brushing off the something called chicken belly buttons when no one was looking.
For her part in the de facto cultural exchange program, Lupfer took some of her Mexican friends snow skiing.
“They had never skied before and they had the greatest time. When I met these folks down at the show, they were thanking me profusely for what my daughter had done,” Greg Lupfer said.
Inspiration Nori Lupfer didn't turn off her creativity once she left the ramp either. The avid photographer and former dancer was surrounded by inspiration.
People from all over the world dressed in silly costumes wearing bright-colored makeup surrounded by animals made amazing photographic subjects. Lupfer shot 4,000 pictures — candids, portraits and every other kind — and used 49 of those photographs in her thesis. This past June, Lupfer transformed the apartment she shared with two other students into an art gallery, even hosting an opening there.
After this tour of duty with the circus, Lupfer said that she will return to school for classes this fall. During the year, she plans to spend a trimester in New York City studying film production, but she has not closed the door on an eventual return to the circus. Lupfer said that she might be interested in another go-round, though she stopped far short of saying she would become a circus careerist.
Unfortunately, Lupfer wasn't able to capture everything about her adventure on film. Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks showed up for a performance in Southern California and, sitting just a few feet from Lupfer, waved in her direction.
“I thought, 'He came to see me perform,' Lupfer said. “I'm totally imagining his face when he saw me jump. For the girl who loves to fly, this was perfect.”
Looking at the 20 or so drawings by students in the
“Illustrated Organism,” a class that integrates biology and arts, it's
impossible to tell which drawings are by art majors and which ones are by
Nature drawing is not simply a scientific or artistic
endeavor, says Peter Tobiessen of biology, who taught the class this spring
with Walter Hatke of visual arts.
The discipline requires keen observation and patience. “It's
about observation and the discipline of sitting down and looking at the samples,”
Tobiessen says. “If you have the power of observation, you end up doing pretty
The course was begun about 10 years ago by Professor
Emeritus Carl George of biology, who taught it a number of times with Hatke and
other arts faculty. Besides drawing and
painting plants and animals in the field, studio and lab, students are required
to write detailed descriptions of the organisms. Samples include animal
skeletons, bird wings, trees and insects.
Students are surprised by the detail of a leaf, a plant, or
a feather, Tobiessen says. One student said, “I can't believe how many scales
there are on a fish.”
And from Tobiessen himself, after drawing a tree: “All trees
are NOT the same.”
As the class on laser cooling ended, the high school students crowded around the front of the Union College classroom, dipping flowers and balloons into liquid nitrogen, then smashing them to bits.
They had gasped in awe as Professor Chad Orzel poured some of the liquid nitrogen onto the table in front of him, causing the liquid to turn into steam the moment it hit the tabletop. When the discussion on the movement of atoms slowed, Orzel randomly tossed a racquetball at students to illustrate the random movements.
It was an attention-grabbing lesson, and that was the point. The 103 students — mostly from minority families or the first person in their family to college — are spending this weekend getting a chance to see what attending a university would be like.
“I think it is very interesting. It gives you the perspective of what college is going to be like,” said Kay Brown, a Scotia-Glenville High School Senior. “Now I know what the classes are going to be like, where the dorms are, and what it's going to be like living there.”
The students are participating in “Camp College,” a weekend visit that includes choosing two of six 45-minute courses, which covered everything from “The Mathematics of Elections” to “Islam and the Democracy in the Middle East.” The students stay in the dorms, eat in the cafeteria, and get lessons in college-essay writing and study skills.
Each student is accompanied by a mentor from either their high school or a community organization. College admissions counselors from 30 private and public universities participate as well. Kelly Herrington, associate dean of admissions at Union, organized the third annual event. It is a project funded in part from grants from the New York State Association for College Admissions Counseling.
“We all had this brainstorm and worked on it together,” he said.
This year, the number of students attending was more than double the last two years.
Kate Kreiss, a guidance counselor at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, Nassau County, worked with Herrington on starting the program.
“Maybe this will give them a taste of honey, that push to make them go further,” she said.
Diane Johnson, director of guidance and social services at Lawrence High School, Nassau County, was attending for the first time, too. She said it was important for the students to see they can fit in at college and won't be the only minorities on campus.
Amanda Serrano, an Albany High School freshman, said the campus visit solidified her goal to get to college.
“I like the fact we can see what college is like before we can go,” she said.
For many of the students, the laser-cooling was the highlight of the day.
“He had a sense of humor,” Elizabeth Lyker, a sophomore from Canajoharie, said. She also was impressed by the living space on campus. “The dorms were neat. I was surprised.”
Maurice Berkeley of the Bronx lingered after the lesson to freeze some flowers and watch how they became brittle and broke when he struck them against a table. “I was pretty amazed how that liquid nitrogen evaporated when it hit the desk,” he said.
Berkeley said he is pretty certain he will enter the Air Force, but the weekend on campus had him thinking about college. “I might consider it now,” he said.
Before she made it to the covers of Indonesian fashion magazines, Niskayuna native Jillian Shanebrook was a self-described geek.
“I was really a social outcast in middle school. I was kind of a geek and used to eat lunch in the bathroom because I had no friends,” said Shanebrook, who would outgrow her shyness and become a popular model in Indonesia years later.
Shanebrook, now 33 and an English teacher, discovered that she had a knack for modeling — something the once-studious child never dreamed possible years earlier. When Shanebrook got to Niskayuna High School, she stopped spending lunchtime in the bathroom but remained a bookworm who rarely socialized.
“I did eat in the library in high school because I didn't have a lot of friends and I felt awkward,” Shanebrook said. “I was intent on being a success academically. I didn't go to parties much. I was a nerd.” She got involved in sports, joining the track, tennis, ski and swimming teams and began to “bloom,” as she called it.
Still, Shanebrook was devoted to her studies and was a National Merit finalist. After graduating from Niskayuna High School in 1986, Shanebrook went to Brown University, then transferred to Union College, where her father teaches engineering and she could go to school for free.
A lifelong fascination with Asia inspired Shanebrook to study in Japan for a year as an exchange student. “I was very interested in Asia and the whole exotic nature of it,” Shanebrook said. “I wanted to go really far a way too because I always felt like such a wimp. When I had gone to summer camp, I cried and went home early. I missed home when I was at Brown.”
It was time for a change.
“I remember thinking: `I am going to be like John Wayne.' He was my symbol of strength and character,” Shanebrook said. “I wanted to change myself and get tougher.”
Even more intrigued by Asia than ever, Shanebrook applied for and got a fellowship at the University of Michigan in the Asian studies program. The funding evaporated after Shanebrook's first year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but because of her background in math, she was offered a spot in an economics program.
After two years at the University of Michigan, Shanebrook decided that she'd had enough. She dropped out of the economics program before earning her doctorate degree but graduated with two master's degrees — one in Asian studies and another in economic development.
“I had had enough of being a study hound,” Shanebrook said. “I thought there must be more to life.” She always wanted to see the West Coast, so in 1994 she took off and lived in Portland, Ore., for six months while she researched Asia _ where she had her sights set on spending some time.
Shanebrook found out about a Peace Corps-like program run through Princeton University that sends people to Asia. There was no academic credit or pay for the program but living expenses were covered. After a crash course in the Indonesian language, she headed for Yogyakarta, which is on the island of Java in Indonesia.
She taught English to college professors who were coming to study for advanced degrees in America. She lived in faculty housing and had a family of three servants who had quarters behind her bungalow. Shanebrook said she lived comfortably on the $200 she was given for expenses.
Indonesia is a Muslin country but is not as strict as Middle Eastern Muslim countries. Women aren't required to cover their faces with veils and are pretty much treated equally to men, Shanebrook said.
She was one of about 20 Western women who lived in Yogyakarta and noticed that people stared at her because she looked different. At 5 feet, 6 inches tall, she towered over many of the native Indonesians.
The curiosity Indonesians had with her appearance made Shanebrook begin to toy with the idea of modeling. She went to a few modeling schools and never heard anything but one day met a clothing designer who asked the 120 lb. Shanebrook if she'd like to be in a fashion show.
That was the start of a modeling career that Shanebrook would later write about in her book.
“I was very nervous . . . I was terrified that I was going to topple over in the heels but I thought I might be able to pull off the supermodel walk I had seen often in fashion shows,” Shanebrook wrote in her book.
“Walking very erectly, shoulders back, head high, shaking the hips ever so slightly, tossing the hair selectively and, most importantly, conferring a look of utter indifference and superiority.”
“In all honesty, my girlfriends and I had been doing this walk past schoolboys since age 12,” Shanebrook wrote. “So I slipped on the heels, sashayed back and forth across the studio. Apparently years of practice paid off.” That first job modeling sportswear paid about $10 but it was the start of a career that would land her on the cover of several magazines.
Though she would model bikinis for Indonesian magazine covers, she rarely wore shorts because it wasn't socially acceptable. She did one photo shoot for a magazine with an Indonesian actress who she had seen on TV.
“It was hilarious. I was thinking, `I'm just this little English teacher, nerd girl from upstate New York and I'm on this modeling shoot with this starlet,' ” Shanebrook said.
Shanebrook also had the opportunity to spend a day with then-first lady Hillary Clinton when she visited Indonesia. “It was exciting to be in this alternative reality. I could do that in American but in Indonesia, I was something special.”
Shanebrook's younger sister, Julie, said she was “totally surprised” to hear about the venture into modeling. “I didn't really think anything of it at first. She would report back that she was going on magazine shoots and doing runway assignments and that she'd make like $50,” said Julie Shanebrook, who is 32 and living in New Jersey now.
“Then the magazines started arriving in the mail and they said Jillian F. Shanebrook on the cover,” Julie Shanebrook said. “I was like, `Wait a minute, I recognize those cheekbones and I've been following those knees around my whole life.”
Shanebrook's mom, Joan, who works for the state Office of Mental Health, said she was pleasantly surprised to see the magazine cover shots of her daughter. “When she sent us some of the magazines, I thought, `Wow, that's our daughter,” Joan Shanebrook said. “It looked like Jillian but she looked very sophisticated.”
Lack of privacy
After nearly a year in Indonesia modeling, people began to recognize her and she was often asked for her autograph.
She had to wear disguises when she went out in public. A fan stalked her and broke into her bungalow in the middle of the night before she chased him out. After that 1995 incident, Shanebrook decided it was time to head back to America.
“That was the straw that broke the camel's back at that point I decided I had to get out of there, Shanebrook said. “I felt like I couldn't go out that much. It felt like I didn't have any privacy anymore.”
Shanebrook returned to Portland in 1995 to run a school that gave intensive English-as-a-second-language lessons. After a year, she moved to New York City, where she got a job as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College teaching English as a second language.
She has worked there for six years. Shanebrook has continued to model off and on _ mainly in Indonesia.
“I did pursue some modeling in New York but had very different experiences. I am just one of thousands of women and on the short side,” Shanebrook said. “I did some print ads for clothing companies but they were very low end jobs.”
Shanebrook, who is single, lives in New York City with her dog. She says that she and her boyfriend, who she met in a “dive bar in Brooklyn” and fell in love with at first sight, plan to get engaged soon.
Back in the area
Shanebrook, whose parents still live in Niskayuna, will be back in the Capital Region in August to promote her book at local bookstores. Shanebrook's former Niskayuna High School 11th grade honors English teacher, Lillian Turner, said she wasn't surprised that her former pupil wrote a book.
“I remember she was a fine student and a very pretty girl,” said Turner, who is now director of the International Charter School of Schenectady. “It's not usual or typical for a student to go on to write books but the work that she would have needed to do to be second in her class at Union Colleges would have suggested that she had the wherewithal to succeed at that project,” Turner said.