Cal Poly summer camp teaches teens about engineering

Participants in the EPIC summer camp at Cal Poly watch a rocket launch into the sky during their last day of the camp Friday, July 11, 2014.
Participants in the EPIC summer camp at Cal Poly watch a rocket launch into the sky during their last day of the camp Friday, July 11, 2014.

It’s relatively simple to launch a model rocket hundreds of feet into the sky with the right equipment and some basic knowledge about how the operation works.

But a summer engineering camp for teenagers at Cal Poly gives them an understanding of the engineering concepts relating to a blast-off.

“We want them to have fun,” said Cal Poly aerospace engineering instructor Dianne Deturris. “But we want them to be engineers. So we’re having them build the rockets, predict the height they think it will reach, and measure the height with an altimeter (a tool used to measure altitude of an object).”

More than 400 teens will experience the university’s Engineering Possibilities in College program by the end of the camp this summer.

Groups of seventh through 12th graders attend week-long sessions on the university campus. The camp started Monday and runs through Aug. 1.

Part of the goal is to expose underrepresented minorities in engineering to opportunities in the field. Thirty-four percent of the campers are minorities, 33 percent are female, and 21 percent are San Luis Obispo County residents.

Some students get a taste of the college living experience by staying in dorms, while others participate during the day and return home at night.

The program includes not just the rocket launch, which took place Friday on the lower soccer field, but many different types of activities and labs.

Campers design and race solar cars, program robots, learn cybersecurity practices, and even work on a scale-model Mars Rover with Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists.

Cal Poly plans and hosts the event, and university faculty members lead some activities. But companies with an engineering bent also participate by providing employee lab instructors and donations. Sponsors include Cisco, JPL, Raytheon, and Santa Maria-based drill manufacturer Melfred Borzall.

“We hope the program increases diversity in the field so we have a more diverse population solving engineering problems,” said EPIC program director Teana Fredeen. “Not only does the program help students decide if they want to go into engineering, it can help them narrow down which specific area of engineering.”

This is the first year of cybersecurity instruction in the seven-year program. Students learn how to safely navigate the internet and protect their online identity, gaining an understanding of how photos and credit card information can spread online.

“Our feeling is that everyone needs to participate in cybersecurity methods,” said Zach Peterson, a Cal Poly assistant professor in computer science. “Students learn different ways they can protect digital assets.”

Nearing the end of her weeklong stay, 16-year-old Crystal Pendergast was part of a group that designed various aerodynamic shapes for model rockets that blasted as high as 561 feet into the sky.

The set-ups involved transmitting electrical currents through wire, igniting black powder that shot the miniature rockets upward toward the clouds to the delight of nearby young school children applauding the exercise.

Pendergast was among a group of students from Washington D.C. who received a scholarship from the Black Student Fund to travel to Cal Poly and attend the $1,400 camp. “It’s my first time in California,” Pendergast said. “It has been an amazing experience. I really like the people here and the area. We’ve learned a lot about how to be engineers. I’m trying to decide between architecture and engineering, so I’m not sure yet what I’ll do. This has been really great.”

Fifteen-year-old Oceano resident Joshua Lewis, who attends Nipomo’s Central Coast New Tech High School, called the camp and rocket launch awesome.

“I learned that (rocket) fins are very crucial to how high you go and where you go,” Lewis said. “It was exciting to finally press the big red launch box button.”

Lewis said he plans to pursue a degree in computer science or computer engineering in college.