Jamie Vail never saw herself as an engineer. She’d always been interested in science. Her dad was a civil engineer, but she wasn’t interested in building roads and bridges.
The summer after her junior year at University High School in Tucson, her parents suggested she attend the University of Arizona’s Summer Engineering Academy. They always thought she’d make a good engineer, but if it wasn’t for her, they pointed out, the camp only lasted a week.
Summer Engineering Academy, or SEA, is a weeklong residential STEM camp that allows high school students to learn more about the engineering programs at the UA College of Engineering. In the Explore Engineering camps, students learn about the College’s 15 majors, and in the themed programs, students can focus in on topics like “Engineering and Sustainability” and “Engineering and Health.”
“When I went to camp, I discovered that there are so many different kinds of engineering,” Vail said. “I never realized there was such depth to what engineers do.”
Vail didn’t have to build any bridges or roads, but there was plenty of the hands-on element she always loved about her science classes. Students form teams and compete in design and build challenges, then discuss projects with professors and students from the College’s different majors. She was especially interested by a presentation by University Distinguished Professor Paul Blowers, who did a demonstration with a soda stream machine and spoke about all the chemical engineering that goes into food science.
“I learned about how engineering applies to everyday life, and that’s kind of what got me interested in engineering,” she said. “I think going to that camp was the reason I decided to major in engineering.”
Mirror Labs and Concrete Canoes
Phoenix native Clare Cronin was looking into summer engineering camps for the summer before her senior year, and her dad came across SEA. Cronin was determined to attend school out of state, but she agreed to give it a try.
“I absolutely fell in love with the campus and the whole program and the teachers. Summer Engineering Academy was honestly the reason I ended up coming to UA.”
“I absolutely fell in love with the campus and the whole program and the teachers,” said Cronin, who also toured Arizona State University, Marquette University, Purdue University and Cal Poly. “Summer Engineering Academy was honestly the reason I ended up coming to UA.”
Cronin remembers watching wide-eyed as she toured the prototype lunar greenhouse, a hydroponic plant growth chamber in which scientists and engineers are developing a continuous and sustainable food source for astronauts. To this day, she tells her friends and family about how interesting it was to tour the Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory. When she learned about the annual concrete canoe competition students in the UA chapter of the American Society for Civil Engineers compete in, she thought it was a joke until someone handed her a piece of concrete that felt like plastic foam.
“It gives you a whole new exposure to engineering,” she said. “I never realized how much research professors are doing just for engineering at the UA, and they want to get you involved with their projects. I learned all of that through a week of camp.”
A Future at UA
Both women went on to study engineering at UA. Vail, now a senior, started off majoring in chemical engineering, in hopes of one day making ice cream flavors for Ben and Jerry’s. She switched to systems engineering during her third year and has a job lined up as a systems engineer with Honeywell after graduation. Cronin started off eying the biomedical engineering major but is now a sophomore majoring in materials science and engineering.
They are also part of the UA Engineering Ambassadors program, in which engineering students conduct outreach, offer prospective students tours of engineering labs and represent the College at industry and alumni functions. Vail has served as a counselor at SEA, and Cronin will be a counselor at the 2018 camp session. They both enjoy showing high schoolers that there’s more to engineering than they might realize.
Students don’t need any background in engineering to attend SEA. Lori Huggins, director of SEA, said it’s an excellent way for STEM-interested students who don’t know much about the field of engineering to learn more about it.
“We’re looking for kids that think math or science is interesting but aren’t really sure if they’re smart enough to do this,” she said. “We want these kids to know that they can be engineers even if they don’t have 4.0s in their math classes.”
Want to help a high school student attend the Summer Engineering Academy? Donate to the SEA crowdfunding campaign for scholarships to cover the camp’s cost for students who need it. The campaign runs through April 15, and a program grant will match every dollar raised up to $4,000.