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Explore Engineering program at UVa helps local students do just that

The team of five middle-schoolers hit a bump in the road before ultimately winning the contest.

“So we thought, ‘Well, what could help it go over the bumps smoother?’ And we decided to turn the bottle around so that the cap wasn’t in the front, and therefore it couldn’t bump into something and just stop the whole thing,” said Riley Beaver, a rising eighth-grader at Buford Middle School participating in the Explore Engineering summer camp at the University of Virginia last week. “And so we turned it around and that worked really well, and then we added the ramp to help it go up and over the box.”

Explore Engineering is an enrichment program for middle school students from across the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The program focuses on teaching and encouraging interest in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

This year, students worked in teams to complete hands-on engineering activities each day of the five-day camp.

“So it has to be something that’s sophisticated enough to be interesting but simple enough that they can actually do it,” Larry G. Richards, program director, said.

One of this year’s activities was called “Trash Sliders.” As part of the activity, students used recycled materials to build a vehicle “that could transverse an obstacle course without spilling its load,” according to their instructions. The team whose vehicle made it down the ramp, spilling the least, won the challenge.

This year’s winners were a group of five girls, all rising eighth graders: Callie Sun, Riley Beaver, Maddie Irani, Buford Middle School and Hannah Dunn of Buford Middle School and Ashley Rowland of Community Lab School. Their team name was called, simply, “The Team.”

The Explore Engineering summer camp was held in UVa’s Rice Hall Monday through Friday of last week. Roughly 30 students attended.

“Well, we do it here, we hope that they’ll learn a little bit about UVa, and as I say, not only consider engineering as a possible career path, but also think about coming to UVa down the road,” Richards said. "And sometimes it happens."

The program wasn’t all engineering projects. The camp’s afternoons were devoted to art activities directed by local artists, and students constructed paper kites, made plaster fossils using sand casting and more.

“I made a starfish, out of just shells and spoons and stuff, and then we plastered them, and then took them out, cleaned them and you had a fossil,” Rowland said.

Students also participated in other activities, including listening to guest speakers, designing and building “hovercrafts” and attending a chemistry show.

“I say it was really fun just being able to see what engineering is all about and learning what they do and just all the projects and stuff were so cool to do and things I’ve never thought about ever with engineering,” Rowland said. “It was cool.”

A closing ceremony was held to end the camp and students were able to showcase their work for friends and family.

The program was sponsored by the Public Education Foundation of Charlottesville-Albemarle, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at UVa’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and other local industries, according to a statement.

While Explore Engineering is a summer program, its organizers have been considering options to expand.

“You know, what could we do in the future,” Richards said. “Well, we had to turn people away, I hate to turn people away. So one possibility is offering multiple camps in the future. One of the teachers here asked me ‘Can you do anything during the school year?’ Maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it yet.”


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