Girl Scouts + Engineering = Good Mix — Part 1

Posted on June 12th, 2010

The last couple of weeks have been busy, so I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like.  However, yesterday’s events were just too awesome not to immediately record.

A few months ago, Audrey Tensen, a long-time friend of mine, contacted me and told me the Girl Scout troop she helped lead was going to be coming to Minnesota.  She  asked if I would be willing to talk with the young ladies in the group to help them understand what engineering was and to show them what was possible for people from a small town like Ravenna.

We started out the day bright and early (well, actually, rainy and early), with the girls arriving at IBM around 9am.  I unfortunately didn’t take any pictures in the morning, but hopefully I’ll be able to get some and insert them here later.

After a quick introduction, I led them through the “magic” of engineering.  I compared being an engineer to movies like Twilight, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings.  I think that one of the reasons we find these movies so fascinating is that the characters in these stories see things that we can’t see in the “real world”.  Like these characters, engineers go through life seeing things that other people don’t.

Most people, when looking at a building, for example, see a beautiful structure. An engineer sees the men who designed the building to hold its own weight, those who laid the foundation, and the men who painstakingly lifted every beam or placed every brick.  An engineer also notices the small details, like the way a floor is designed to keep people safe or how an instrument works.

Engineers are different. The best engineers combine skill with creativity to come up with new, interesting solutions.  We see the world in fresh new ways–not just in how it is, or how something was built, but also in new possibilities.

Once I finished my message about how engineers are different, I started describing robots and the engineering that goes into them.  I introduced the instantly recognizable Tickle-Me-Elmo, which was a delight for both the leaders and the Girl Scouts.

As an aside, it’s also a delight for me to show something that brings joy to others.

With Elmo, I pointed out the simple things in his design that combined to make an interactive toy.  Elmo is comprised of:

  • a computer – the central unit that tells Elmo his current state (how many times he’s been tickled, whether he’s standing up or laying down, etc) and controls his movements
  • two motors – one to control his arm, and one to control his legs
  • an accelerometer – which tells him his orientation in the world so he knows when he needs to stand up
  • several touch sensors – each of which tells the embedded computer whether Elmo is being tickled.

We also talked about the way his materials were engineered — soft furry coat, making sure that he can stand up to rough handling, a nose that would be hard to bite off, eyes too big to fit in a child’s mouth, etc.  Every detail was carefully designed to make Elmo a fun interactive toy.

I then introduced them to R2-D2, a droid I’ve owned for over two years.  R2-D2 is much more advanced than Elmo.  In addition to the features Elmo has, R2-D2 can also respond to voice commands, use an infrared sensor to find someone, and also tell someone “No”.  The ladies seemed fascinated by the possibility of controlling something by simply using a voice command.

Toni Adafin, a friend of mine who I’ve grown to know through our countless volunteer efforts, arrived just as I was wrapping up my discussion of R2-D2.  I’d asked for just half an hour of her time, and she graciously provided over an hour. She talked about her life from where she grew up in Louisiana, and how she got to IBM.

One of her funny stories included talking about her first winter here:  how she had no idea how to get  through all the snow we receive here in Minnesota.  In Louisiana, the entire town would shut down for the day when they got snow — but the snow would likely be gone after a day.

That doesn’t happen in Minnesota.

The most interesting aspect of Toni’s talk was how little she thought about race and gender as she went through college and worked at IBM.  It wasn’t until much later, she said, that she started to think of it as a problem.  However, knowing Toni, this doesn’t surprise me — Toni’s too forward looking and positive to get caught up in thoughts of the world being against her.

Both the Girl Scouts and the leaders seemed very interested in talking with women engineers — in their experience, it sounds like successful women engineers are hard to come by, so they were excited by the opportunity to talk with Toni.

Once Toni finished speaking (her prepared talk was about 30 minutes), we had a half hour or so of questions and answers.  She was also kind enough to provide some Fruit Rollups and Gushers for everyone to enjoy.

After a short break, we then took a quick tour of the IBM plant.  I showed them some of the history of computing:  ranging from abacuses to speedy calculators (a large version of a slide rule), as well as IBM devices from the early 20th century.

I also showed them the first portable MRI machine that IBM created in conjunction with Mayo.  This was an awesome invention.

Strangely enough, the device that got the most attention was actually a punch clock, used to keep track of the hours someone worked at their job.  I had to feel a bit old when I realized I’d used one when I was the same age as the Girl Scouts in attendance, as I worked at Clark’s Blueberry Farm in Ravenna one summer.  It’s amazing sometimes to think of how far I’ve come — from picking blueberries to a engineering software and writing part-time.

All of the young ladies were amazed at how far technology has progressed, as well as the thought that people actually used some of these systems.  Some of them are now obsolete, while others still have some uses today.  A version of the punch clock, for example, is still used (as far as I’m aware) at many manufacturing plants, stores, and farms today.

I also showed off some of IBM’s history in Rochester — how 50 years ago, the land where IBM now stands was merely a corn field.  Today, we have houses, stores, and strip malls.  Yesterday’s rural landscapes have transformed into a booming city — amazing in some ways, though this certainly comes at a cost to wildlife.  However, Rochester does seem to do an exceptional job at maintaining nature as well as providing economic opportunities.

Once we finished the tour, it was off to the Plummer Building to explore the bell tower.  This was an awesome opportunity–I’d never done anything like it.

However, this blog post seems long enough, though I’ve only covered the first two hours.  Part 2 (talking more about the bell tower, race exhibit, and the Girl Scouts programming robots) to come soon!