By Tom Hart
Engineering and the story of Rapunzel met for elementary school girls under one roof Sunday in Prince Frederick Hall.
Sophomore mechanical engineering major Yonit Ollech held the Engineering Playdate at noon in the multipurpose room for her Design Cultures and Creativity honors program capstone. DCC awarded a $500 grant for Engineering Playdate’s proposal.
The event encouraged the 16 girls attending to learn hands-on problem solving in a setting geared towards their interests.
Ollech said the event’s focus was to show girls that engineering “could be a space that they feel comfortable in,” and combat the misconception that typically feminine proclivities, like enjoying Disney princess movies, indicate a lack of interest or qualification in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields.
“I think that’s silly, because the two don’t correlate,” said Ollech, an active member of this university’s Jewish community.
Using an excerpt from the 2010 Disney movie “Tangled” as an introduction, Ollech gave the girls a challenge: They had to build a tower for Rapunzel, but the princess’s visitors would have to get to the top without using her hair.
Equal parts engineering design and arts-and-crafts, four groups of four girls and two student volunteers each constructed towers at least 16 inches tall using cardboard, tape and construction paper, among other materials. The teams built pulley systems, ladders and secret passageways to help Rapunzel’s friends get to the top.
The event included a pizza party for lunch and screening of “Tangled” before the groups presented their finished towers.
Ollech said she worked with a science teacher at Paint Branch Elementary School in tailoring Engineering Playdate to its audience. Afterward, she reached out to several principals and PTAs at local schools to garner interest.
Several of Ollech’s friends, many of whom are fellow female STEM majors, made up the nine student volunteers. Ollech’s promotion platforms included Facebook and an engineering listserv.
“This was so cute,” senior art major Avid Antonelli said.
Antonelli found out about the event through Startup Shell, the on-campus entrepreneurial incubator behind hackathons Bitcamp and its all-female counterpart, Technica.
Though Antonelli was one of the only volunteers who wasn’t a STEM major, she related personally to the goals of the event.
“I always got really self-conscious” in majority-male STEM classes, she said. “I know little girls feel that too … like [STEM] isn’t meant for them.”
The girls who attended seemed to get a different feeling from the event.
“I had a lot of fun doing the project,” said 11-year-old Elle Suntum.
Elle’s friend Sophia Bercraft, 11, agreed and said she especially enjoyed the “Tangled” tie-in.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for them to broaden their horizons,” Elle’s father Sean Suntum said.
Ollech plans to continue Engineering Playdate by making it an Student Government Association-recognized club and potentially partnering with Technica.
Ollech said she “want[s] it to outlive” her time at this university.