LOS ALTOS -- In many high schools, a class in science or engineering starts with reading from the textbook and finishes with a lab exercise from the textbook. But last week, high schoolers were flying remote-control hovercraft, building their own robots, even strapping in for helicopter simulations, all in the name of science education.

At Foothill College's STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) summer camps, a group of young engineering instructors are throwing out the book -- turning the traditional, problem-based engineering class upside-down in an attempt to engage more students in STEM.

"In high school, they get a prescribed lab, they don't really get to be creative," said Peter Murray, the dean of physical sciences, mathematics and engineering at Foothill. "Here, we give them a whole bunch of parts and a plan, but we don't tell them how to do it."

Leaving a bunch of teenagers to their own devices on a complex project may seem like an odd way to introduce them to engineering, but Sarah Parikh, an assistant professor of engineering and physics at Foothill College and a summer STEM camp instructor, says it works. Hands-on problem solving, she says, is more approachable than a professor droning on about math-dense physics concepts.


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"A lot of the system currently set up is really boring, lecture-based classes, where students do work individually," she said. "They're really set up in such a way that they don't feel supported and don't make it through the system."

Parikh, who teaches Foothill College's introductory engineering class, has spent a considerable part of her career trying to get more students involved in engineering. In her attempt to reach more underrepresented groups -- women, ethnic minorities and people from every stripe of the socioeconomic spectrum -- she's leaned on her research in engineering education and focused on building teams that support each other.

"I'm really interested in incorporating research-based ideas into the class," she said. "That's everything down to what projects we do and how teams are formed."

In fact, Foothill College's STEM summer camps are designed for underrepresented groups in science fields, including women. While comparable Bay Area summer camps are charging thousands of dollars a week, the weeklong programs at Foothill are free and come with breakfast and lunch. This year -- the camp's first -- Foothill College is running five different programs over four weeks; according to Murray, they're looking to expand the size and scope of the program next summer.

The program has already attracted a diverse group of students. In last week's robotics and math sessions, students represented schools from the elite Gunn High School in Palo Alto to lower-performing schools like Newark Memorial and San Jose's Del Mar High. The class's gender breakdown sat around 50-50, quite a feat in a field that continues to be dominated by men.

"In my career, there were maybe three, four girls in an electrical engineering class," said Oxana Pantchenko, an instructor at Foothill College who is coordinating the STEM summer camps. "When they come into a classroom full of boys, it could be frightening. This is what this camp is about -- showing them it's possible and it's not difficult."

In last week's robotics session, students were challenged to build and program a robot that could travel by itself through a cardboard maze. On the first day of camp, most robots just sat at the entrance of the maze, ramming helplessly into walls or spinning uncontrollably.

"At first it was hard because we were trying to figure it out; we didn't know what we were doing," said Sonia Romo, of Santa Clara, a camper at the STEM summer camps and an engineering novice. "It feels like a great accomplishment when you see it go through (the maze) even once."

But the test run never counts, and Romo's robot, dubbed Mr. Whiskers, struggled to make it through the maze again. She and her team were forced to go back to the drawing board, think of all the possible bugs in the code, try a fix and test, test, test. Such is the struggle of the project-based engineer.

By the end of the week, Mr. Whiskers only got out of the maze three times. Not everyone got to see him whir to freedom, but for his builders and programmers, that didn't diminish the accomplishment.

"Even though you're the only one who saw it go through the maze, it still feels really good," Romo said.

Contact Edward Ngai at 408 920 5064