Rhiannon Harrell

Rhiannon Harrell, a senior at Marion Senior High School, attended a summer engineering camp at Virginia Tech for rising junior and senior girls. They studied the issue of food deserts.

Girls can be engineers too. That is what a local student wants to get across to her peers.

Rhiannon Harrell, a senior this year at Marion Senior High School, attended an engineering camp for girls at Virginia Tech this summer, which was a struggle to get into because of scarce study opportunities in this region.

“There aren't many opportunities around here to explore more in the engineering field, that's a main reason I went to this camp,” Harrell said. “When I applied for this camp, at first I wasn't accepted. I then scheduled a call back with Dr. Lester [Dr. Kim Lester, associate director, CEED - Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity College of Engineering/Virginia Tech], the woman in charge of the camp, where she asked me extra questions and explained what wasn't up to par on my application. A main thing was I didn't have as many classes or activities related to engineering on it as other girls. After we finished talking, she understood that at a small school in a rural county, I didn't have the same opportunities as some of the other applicants. At the end of our call I distinctly remember her saying, ‘If I could offer you a spot right now, I would.’ Then a few days later I got an email saying if I still wanted to attend, a spot had opened up and they'd be happy to have me there.”

Harrell was the only student chosen to attend the camp from this region. There were about 150 applicants for 50 spots. Harrell was chosen as “one of our top candidates due to your academic record, extracurricular involvement and passion for engineering.”

Harrell said she enjoys having this type of camp opportunity. Her grandmother had heard about this one at Virginia Tech.

“Three years ago I went to a younger version of this camp called BLAST and it helped spark a passion in me for engineering,” she said.

Harrell was excited to attend the two-week CTech^2 camp for rising junior and senior girls at Tech.

“On the first day of camp we were split into groups of three and had a meeting with a couple engineers from General Electric,” said Harrell. “They gave us the problem we had to solve during the two weeks: food deserts.”

“Food deserts are areas where people do not have access to healthy foods due to factors such as distance and price,” she said. “Smyth County is actually considered one!”

Students would work in groups to develop ideas. On last full day of camp, each group pitched its idea to a panel of engineers at General Electric.

“It was really cool to hear their thoughts on some of our crazy ideas,” she said.

Camp participants were able to get hands-on experiences with multiple types of engineering.

“At the aerospace engineering lab we got to see how shape memory alloy works,” Harrell said. “When bent out of shape it will stay there until heat is added and then it returns to its original shape. We also got to make our own android apps and even program a working radio on a laptop.”

”Since we were there for two weeks we had some scheduled faculty lunches. Four days of camp we had several different engineering professors eat lunch with us and we could ask them as many questions as we wanted. One night we had an etiquette dinner to learn how to be more professional in interview situations. Throughout the two weeks we got to experience many different engineering labs and got to grow and make connections with other young women with similar interests.”

Harrell said she is glad to see a focus on engineering for young women and hopes others will be encouraged to get involved.

“We live in a society where we give little girls Barbie’s and have them play dress up, while we give little boys science kits and Legos,” she said. “From the beginning, girls are told math and science fields are for boys; that because it's not sold in a pink box it can't be something they'd be interested in.”

“I feel like by middle school it's hard for girls to acquire an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. Perhaps we should start a program for elementary school girls to explore the different things you can do in engineering. Because girls associate this field with boys they don't consider what else they can do. Chemical engineers make the formulas for makeup, material science engineers come up with better resources to make different things, and biomedical engineers help create prosthetics. If young girls knew all the options there are in engineering, there would be a lot more interest.”

Harrell hopes an interest in STEM programs and potential careers will be encouraged by parents and teachers.

“From a young age I always excelled at math and science, and loved problem-solving,” she said. “The older I got, the more I heard of this engineering thing that incorporated all of those things. I believe that yes, it is tied to a career goal. Everyone always says to pick a career that you'll never get tired of doing. Engineering is creative problem solving, any branch of it a person chooses to go into will be solving different problems all the time. I think it would be a good option as a career for me because I wouldn't be stuck doing the same thing day in and day out, but something new.”

“Even though we don't have many options to explore engineering here, if you look hard enough, you can find something to help expand your knowledge,” Harrell said.

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