Engineering Academy gives high-schoolers
a crash course in design © Aug. 15, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

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video by David W. Smith2008 Engineering Academy design competition

It’s early August, and most of Juckett Hall, headquarters of Norwich University’s David Crawford School of Engineering, is quiet. Just a few summer students occupy classrooms. In a different part of the building, however, it’s another story.

It is Engineering Academy week at Norwich, and 20 high school students are at work on three cars. As part of the session’s challenges, they are given a motor, wood, wheels and Styrofoam to create a vehicle that can drive three laps around the Upper Parade Ground, float on the nearby Dog River, slalom down a mountainside and brake on command.

By Day 3, you can hear hammers pounding. In one room, three high-schoolers hammer away on a pressed wood cutout. The shape is mounted on four small wheels. A tall, wiry teen stands on top, testing its strength.

Rebecca Aidala of Niskayuna, N.Y., watches attentively. She wants to say something, but bites her tongue. She is a counselor and an alumna from last year. “Watching them do it over again, I think what I would do over. I’m thinking about what I did wrong and what they are doing wrong,” she said. “And I can’t give away anything!”

Even counselors who never attended the camp are enthralled. “I almost wish I could go to it,” said Rob Burnham, a junior at Norwich, America’s oldest private military college located in Northfield, Vt.

The counselors aren’t always around, so we need to work things out ourselves. It definitely teaches you leadership.

~ AnnMarie Rey, Engineering Academy participant

“These designs are all completely different. So, it’s going to be interesting how they come out,” added NU sophomore Lisa Belisle. “Really interesting.”

“It’s awesome. It’s really fun; a good way to spend the summer,” said Seth Larimore, 17, of Flora, Ind. “It’s so interesting and you get a taste of each engineering [degree program].”

While Larimore knows he wants to be an engineer, AnnMarie Rey of Chicago came to camp with a love of math and science. She left with a new appreciation for the discipline. “Engineering is the field that incorporates those two,” she said.

And with college students acting as counselors, high-schoolers are picking up Norwich values. Teams have to figure out how to work together. One group said they are a “free-for-all,” while others assigned roles. “The counselors aren’t always around, so we need to work things out ourselves,” Rey said. “It definitely teaches you leadership.”

“At the beginning, they all wanted to be leaders ... all wanted to do everything, but as they go on they do start to work together and learn how to collaborate,” said Belisle.

Collaboration was not at the forefront the evening before the contest. Things were starting to go wrong. Team Purple Wild Stallions had to reattach their frame because it was improperly bolted. Down the hall, Team One was in a tizzy.

“The last thing we did last night was sit on [the car] and then it broke,” said Siri Maley, 17, of Philadelphia. “The front was originally mounted at an angle and snapped off, so now we are remounting it vertically.”

At 8 a.m. on contest day participants are exhausted but pumped. The three driving laps are no sweat. The river is another story. It is shallow despite rain the night before. It’s rocky and moving fast. Larimore fords the river for Team One, paddling up a storm. He’s got a group of people behind, pushing. Then a wheel snags on the rocks. Larimore’s teammates lift him and the car out of the water.

The wheel breaks off and they can’t move on to the final contest. They are OK with that, he said, because their car floated best and won the river contest.

The slalom is a steep hill with a winding course set up with construction cones. Manwich driver Erik Troutman, 17, of Schnecksville, Pa., was excited to drive. “I’ve driven go-carts and stuff but nothing like this. If I kill myself, I kill myself,” he said.

Unfortunately, Troutman wasn’t able to get past the third cone. The car’s steering failed and it flipped. Troutman knows the problem, but it’s one he can’t fix. “The wood [frame] expanded in the river and it doesn’t steer well.”

Purple Wild Stallions had more luck. The car, with wood horns facing out, steers beautifully and stops just as it should. They are the obvious winners, but the teams gathered to discuss cars and the camp rather than victories after the contest.

Sixteen-year-old Victoria Ragan of Georgetown, Tex., didn’t want to leave. “I hope to get accepted [to Norwich] because I am having so much fun here,” she said.

Aidala, who will attend in the fall, can relate. She fell in love with the campus during the academy and likes the fact that there are two distinct student lifestyles. “I’m going ‘civie,’ but it’s cool to watch,” she said referring to the Corps of Cadets, Norwich’s military student population.

Burnham agreed. “I came to Norwich for engineering program. I liked the small numbers, how it’s personal with teachers,” he said. “And it’s like I thought it would be—it hasn’t disappointed.”