Area students build, launch rockets during Kids In Engineering Day at UAB

By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times

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Kendle Wright, an 11-year-old Clay Elementary School student, has a bright future. She wants to be a lawyer and a baker, but she also has a love for engineering.

“You can use your skills and what you know in any field of learning to help you do anything involving science,” she said.

Wright was at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) on Saturday, Feb. 10, for Kids in Engineering, a day-long event hosted by the UAB chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. Another session is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 17.  

Last week was Wright’s second time attending: “The reason I went last year was because … I know what a mechanical engineer is, and I wanted to learn more.”

Branching Out

This year’s gathering took place at the UAB Business and Engineering Complex. Students in the fourth through sixth grades teamed up to construct a bottle rocket that they got to see take off. Also in attendance were several representatives from the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), a group dedicated to seeing more minorities introduced to engineering at a young age.

“It’s important for other minority students to see that they can be engineers, they can be any type of scientist they want to be,” said Joydan Jones, president of the NSBE Birmingham Professionals chapter. “You don’t have to be a football player or entertainer to be successful. Exposing [young people] to professions early on helps them break out of the box.”

Jones, a first-year PhD student majoring in material science and engineering at UAB, said she was pleased to see the number of black students at this year’s Kids in Engineering event “because we as a people are not always exposed to people who look like us in these professions.”

Girls in Engineering

Kendle Wright’s mother, Kenyonia, said the program provides students with an outlet they otherwise would not have.

“It’s something inside of them that they need to get out,” Kenyonia said. “If I would have had this type of stuff when I was growing up, I would probably be a top person somewhere, but no one made this happen. That’s why I make sure she comes to events like this and does things that are centered on something she’s passionate about.”

Engineering is just one of Kendle’s interests.

“I am part of a club at school called Science Olympiad,” she said. “Science is more of a learning trait for me. I study science because of the club, and we have a state competition next week. I really enjoy debating, though. That’s why I want to be a lawyer.”

Nine-year-old Faith, a fifth grader from Irondale Community School, said it’s important for girls to share “our perspective and have input from other cultures.”

Faith, who wants to be an emergency room doctor, said she attended the event because she enjoys robotics: “It’s fun building stuff and learning about it. The most exciting thing for me today was when we were making the base for the rocket. We were able to drill into the wood, and we were making tubes to put compressed air into them to make the rocket launch.”

Solving Projects

Kids in Engineering started as a fundraiser for the Society of Women Engineers to raise money to attend several conferences. The first event attracted 32 students—and this year’s gathering drew more than 100 young people from across the Birmingham metro area.

The theme on Saturday was Branching Out, and the event highlighted the different disciplines of engineering offered at UAB, including mechanical, electrical, civil, biomedical, and material science.

Rachel Guthrie, a member of the Society of Women Engineers, said it’s time for girls to see a different career path than what is often being pushed to them.

“Girls are told that it’s not feminine to think about a problem or get involved with math and sciences,” said Guthrie, a senior majoring in materials engineering at UAB. “They’re told to be more liberal-arts oriented. I think it’s important that early on females are told, ‘You can be a mechanical engineer,’ ‘You can get your hands dirty with problem-solving projects and be very successful doing that.’”

It’s also important to show kids that engineering can be fun, she said.

“It’s nice to have young kids come in, have fun with engineering, and not see it as something really hard or rough,” said Guthrie. “I think it’s nice to have young kids in here because they see you can make stuff, and then they can put the stuff they learn in school to use in the real world.”

In 2014, a study by the Society of Women Engineers found that women make up 9 percent of the engineering workforce.

“That sounds like a statistic that belongs in the 1950s,” said Emma Latham, president of Society of Women Engineers at UAB and a senior majoring in biomedical engineering. “There’s a major void in the field of women. That’s one reason we exist: to even the playing field, to show girls that they are just as good in math as guys are.”