Using hands-on and high-tech tools, girls in the "Ultimate Engineering and Design Experience for Young Women" summer camp at The Athenian School are changing the face of science.

Operating like a think-tank incubator that pumps out computer-aided designs sourced from the fertile imaginations of girls in middle school, instructor Eugene Mizusawa says, "I'm not making them become scientists: I'm letting them know what's out there."

And there's nothing too "out there" for a group of students, who gathered in early August in the Danville school's tech classroom for an interview. Here, old ideas of engineering being a man's world are left in the dust, as cell phone cases, coin counters, hamster mazes, "grabber" tools, heat monitors and a crutch sling Mizusawa calls "remarkable" are put on display.

Bella Temkin, 12, shows off a the crutch sling she helped invent that makes it easier to use crutches at the Athenian School Engineering and Design
Bella Temkin, 12, shows off a the crutch sling she helped invent that makes it easier to use crutches at the Athenian School Engineering and Design Experience for Young Women summer camp on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, in Danville, Calif. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

"You can't have only normal ideas," says Luisa Taverna, 13, from San Ramon. "Out of one hundred people, ninety-nine have to say it can't work. If they don't, there's probably already something like it."

Proving that necessity is the mother of invention, 12-year-old Alamo resident Bella Temkin's tendinitis from horseback riding spurred one of the camp's most intriguing creations.


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With her arms chafing and exhausted from propelling herself forward while waiting for surgery, Temkin and Kelsey McNemar, of Danville, searched for an assistive device. Rubber tubing and paracord rope, bound to the crutches with duct tape, served as a prototype. Learning to operate a metal lathe, milling machine, MIG (metal inert gas) welder and other power tools, the two-girl team tested varieties of leather and learned how to use SketchUp to design the sling and brackets. Output on a 3-D MakerBot printer, the sling's stronger ropes, bungee cords for stretch and circle-shaped die cuts refine the "homemade" look into a product a venture capital company might consider as their next investment. Most importantly -- it works.

"Nobody thinks girls can invent things. This class taught me we can," Temkin says. Already, she's planning a hook attachment, for carrying a bag while on crutches.

Christina Garcia, 13, from San Ramon, has had her inner-girl-scientist rejuvenated as well.

"When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an engineer. Every class, as I got older, was overpopulated with the male gender. It made me doubt I could do it," she says. "If you were working with a boy, they would overpower you. Here, when I'm using the mill or the lathe, I don't have to think if a boy will be better. I can concentrate on doing the work."

Grace True, 12, hardly notices the furor over gender and science opportunities. She's been building since she developed an interest in space years ago. But that doesn't mean she's all gung-ho science, because she says, language, the arts and history are equally important. "We don't need the whole population in one thing; you want a balance. We need everyone to share what they know," she says.

Lori Harsh, a mechanical engineer and Athenian Shop Facility Manager involved in the camp, says new engineers coming into the field are often keen on virtual and analysis tools. Building from scratch? Not so much, especially girls. She says women are gaining in the "softer" virtual field, where the tangibles are in your brain. Helping the girls to gain tool skills has been her focus. "They realize it doesn't take a boy to run the power tools: it takes a person," she says.

Mizusawa says a strong engineering team isn't necessarily a 50/50 gender balance, but the more gender-mixed a team is, the closer it gets to solutions that can save or change the world. "The team dynamic is richer," he says. "To be a great teacher, you need the best solutions to come from all directions."

The camp environment is almost like a bath: washed clean of negative messages about capabilities, free to fling an idea into the open air and knowing it won't crash on judgmental, hard land, the girls' conversations explode with dreams and ideas.

"I'm interested in computer science and engineering. It's up to us to solve the world's problems, like global warming" says Sara Dada, 13, from San Ramon. She's working on a baby monitor that alerts parents their child is overheating in a car seat.

"I don't like writing a plan, because I miss the surprises," says 13-year-old Danville resident Clara Jones. A good eye and bold ambition mean her hamster, Fudgy, will have a tight-fitting, tubular workout maze in which to stay trim.

Christina Dodd remains determined to make something useful and gain experience with the tools. She says the class has opened her eyes to building and inventing and from where she sits, among a group of fellow female scientists, the possibilities are endless.

FYI
Where: The Athenian School, 2100 Mount Diablo Scenic Blvd. in Danville
Phone: 925-837-5375
Online: www.athenian.org