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Engineering camp for CPS students teaches problem solving, leadership

Teachers and student mentors lead the three-day camp for middle schoolers.

CPS students Mae Ban (left) and Sammy McDermott work on their team’s robot at Friedrich Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center on Wednesday.
Megan Nagorzanski/Sun-Times

Laila Mendez, 17, had taken engineering for three years at school but felt her voice as a young woman was overpowered.

“In all those groups that I was in, it was mostly men and then me,” she said. “I would do all the work, and the men would take all the credit.”

So she and four other Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center students created the Made By Women club. They wanted other girls at her school to know that STEM isn’t just for men.

“We’re going to do outreach programs, so going to younger girls and tell them, ‘You can be engineers,’ because back then, we never were told we can go into the STEM fields. So I feel like it’s important that they have good, like role models in high school,” Mendez said.

Mendez and other teens who helped start the club are serving as student mentors at an engineering and robotics camp being held this week at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center. The three-day program aims to expose Chicago Public School middle schoolers to STEM fields as well as create mentorship opportunities for high schoolers.

Von Steuben Principal Jennifer Sutton said exposing students to STEM outside of the classroom is “incredibly important” because many students don’t even know a career in a STEM field is an option.

“How do you know what you want to explore when you don’t have an idea of what it actually looks like in a career?” Sutton said.

Olivia Kocot (from left), Mary Henning, Ailene Rodriguez and Laila Mendez pose with a robot. The girls are founding members of Made By Women, a STEM-oriented club for young women at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center.
Megan Nagorzanski/Sun-Times

Students attending the camp are split into teams and tasked with constructing and programing a robot, which compete on a course built on the last day of camp.

Julio Mendez Sr., one of the camp’s faculty supervisors, is a physics and engineering teacher at Von Steuben and also coaches the school’s robotics teams.

While the student teams worked on their robots earlier this week, Mendez walked over to talk with a group that was troubleshooting their robot after a failed test run. They had already constructed and programmed it, but after doing a test run, the students realized two parts of the robot were creating too much friction and slowed it down. The students discussed possible solutions, many of which included deconstructing the robot.

“That’s engineering,” Mendez said.

At the end of the day, Mendez said the camp is meant to be fun for the students. He sees them enjoying themselves.

“When it’s 12 o’clock and it’s supposed to be over, we have to keep telling them, ‘It’s done, guys. We need to stop. We need to go home.’ They’re in here working all day,” he said.

Like the camp, the Made By Women Club creates a space for young women to gain confidence when working in male-dominated spaces.

Mary Henning, 15, another founding member of club, said her favorite part of the group is being able to “learn how to use different parts of a robot or just building different engineering structures in general.”