Shannon Sanderson always enjoyed math and science at Olathe South High School, but she couldn't see herself as an engineer until she spent a week at a Kansas University summer camp eight years ago.
"I took as much math and science as the high school offered," recalled Sanderson, adding that she also spent a lot of time in the computer science lab. "But I was never much of a hands-on, take-it-apart kind of person."
In her sophomore year, Sanderson became one of 16 participants in KU's then-fledgling Project Discovery for Girls, a weeklong camp focusing on various engineering disciplines. She liked it so much that she came back two more summers before entering KU's School of Engineering. Next spring she will graduate with double degrees in computer engineering and Spanish.
"One summer I did the aerospace engineering class," Sanderson said. "It was interesting, but not really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The next summer I did the computer science sequence. We learned to program in JAVA, working with robots and simulating a graphing calculator. My team won the big program contest. So after that, I decided to stick with computers."
KU's School of Engineering is one of 25 schools in the nation to offer Project Discovery for Girls. Run through its diversity programs unit and in conjunction with the Society for Women in Engineering, KU's program attracts 20-30 high school sophomores to seniors each session to spend six days on campus learning about engineering, university life and teamwork.
Faculty members and graduate assistants instruct the girls in one of three disciplines during each of two sessions. This year, the offerings included aerospace engineering, architectural engineering, biomechanical engineering, chemical and petroleum engineering, civil and environmental engineering, and electrical engineering/computer science.
"Women are considered underrepresented in the engineering circles," said Florence Boldridge, director of diversity programs for KU's School of Engineering.
"In the School of Engineering, we have some 1,500 students in undergraduate level coursework, and 270 of them are women."
Since its beginning in 1997, KU's Project Discovery has attracted nearly 200 young women to KU from Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, Texas, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington.
"These girls are extremely bright," Boldridge said, noting this summer's participants averaged a 3.89 grade point average.
Most have taken advanced math and science classes, but many of the younger students get guidance in selecting appropriate high school level coursework to prepare them for the university.
"Our hope is that we can recruit them into the engineering program," said Arvin Agah, an associate professor in computer engineering who has taught the summer program three times. "We'd like to have more diverse population."
Agah introduces the young women to "C" programming by having them build and program robots. Each team then programs its robots to compete in a talent show, Sumo wresting and lap races.
"They program these robots to dance, sing and run," Agah said. "They learn competition and that no matter how good the program is, sometimes things go wrong. We use the robots to teach them teamwork and competition and good communication. That's what the class is about."