Posted on Jul 22, 2009

Genesis Bonds, 15, of Queens, N.Y. and XYZ, Age, of CBD, share a laugh during an EDGE computer programming class.

The process of creation, that jubilant moment when a problem’s finally solved, the excitement of knowing what makes a talking toy talk – these are all things Rebecca Swartz likes about engineering. But what she values, perhaps even more, is the opportunity to make a difference.

“Women, we’re really a minority in engineering, so to have the chance to help change that is great,” she said.

Swartz, a 16-year-old high school student from Schenectady, is one of 17 young women participating in Union’s eighth annual “Educating Girls for Engineering” camp.

“The low percentage of females in the engineering profession results in the lack of an important perspective among the teams that are making decisions about our human-made world,” said Cherrice Traver, dean of engineering. “The EDGE workshop was designed to give young women an opportunity to explore this career, and to understand the contributions that engineers make to society.”

Eve Marenghi, 16, of Somers, N.Y., works with Rebecca Swartz, 16, of Schenectady and Jessica Rivetz, also 16, of Dix Hills, N.Y. The girls are developing a toy for a child with auditory and visual disabilities.

According to the Society of Women Engineers, females make up just over 11 percent of the engineering workforce.

During the two-week residential program, supported this year by the Jerome A. Schiff Charitable Trust, students also learn to apply engineering principles outside the classroom.

Academic Counselor Gale Keraga’s communication module, for instance, teaches effective public speaking and presentation skills. Additionally, a robotics course guides the girls as they adapt toys for children with special needs. This class is instructed by Computer Science Lecturer Linda Almstead and Electrical and Computer Science Lecturer James Hedrick.

On Friday, the camp’s final day, the girls will present the modified toys and speech devices to children at Northwoods at Hilltop in Niskayuna, a part of the Northwoods Health System network.

Allison Teevan, 16, of Delmar, N.Y. and Marietou Haidara, 18, of Bronx, N.Y., work with Electrical and Computer Science Lecturer James Hedrick during an EDGE class.

“Our child, Butch, has a brain defect that hinders his fine motor skills,” explained Gabrielle Watson, an 18-year-old student from Jamaica who attends school in Connecticut. “So we made a toy for him that makes noise, lights up, or vibrates when he places different shaped blocks in the correct slots.”

“The problem-solving aspect of making this for him has been great,” she continued. “I’ve gotten a real feel for what it’s like to actually do some engineering, instead of just learning the theory behind circuitry or computer programming.”

The hands-on, real-world nature of EDGE also means a lot to Aileen Jiang of Montgomery, N.J. It’s allowed the 16-year-old to combine two of her favorite interests.

Nicole Bleuel, 16, of Stamford, Conn. is part of a group of EDGE campers developing a mechanized Barbie toy for a young girl with disabilities.

“I’m involved in a lot of community service in my town and I really wanted to come here to help kids with disabilities,” she said. “The definition of engineering, to me, is using what you know in science and math to help society. I love giving back and I love science and math, and that makes engineering the perfect path for me.”

Union has been educating engineers since 1845, when it became the first liberal arts college to offer courses in the field.