VALPARAISO — Aaron Treble put his 250-pound R2D2 droid through its paces on Friday as a classroom filled with preteen-aged girls clapped and snapped iPhone photos.
“Dance R2, dance,” commanded one of the girls as the droid flashed its lights, played music and spun its top dome around.
Treble, a Valparaiso resident, and the near-replica “Star Wars” character he built were the focus of the final class on the last day of the five-day EGEAR Summer Camp at Valparaiso University’s Gellersen Engineering and Math Center.
“R2 lives in my shop and can ‘talk’ and play music,” Treble explained.
Some 24 girls, all wearing pink T-shirts with the words “Girl Geek Week” hung on to Treble’s every word.
This was the first year for EGEAR, or engaging girls in engineering through art and reading, a camp opened to girls entering third to fifth grade in the fall, Ruth Wertz said.
Wertz, who led the camp, serves as an assistant professor of general engineering at Valparaiso University.
“This camp came out of research I did on spatial skills,” Wertz said.
Wertz said researchers have tried to understand why there are so few women in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, fields.
Gaps in spatial ability between girls and boys can be detected as early as elementary school and tend to become more pronounced with age, Wertz said.
Research across cultures suggest that biology is not the reason these gaps develop. Instead, it may have more to do with how kids, particularly boys, play with toys such as Lego blocks and Erector sets.
GoldieBlox toys and other items marketed to girls are testing the theory that girls learn differently by including a story with its items.
“It’s one of the first to include a story; one of the first to focus on a narrative,” Wertz said.
During the week, books played a big part in the focus of the activities including the reading of “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” a book about a young inventor who aspires to become an engineer, and “Hello Ruby,” a book that introduces programming without use of a computer.
Team-building activities were also part of the week and included the building of a parade float by participants and the construction of a solar oven in which s’mores were made.
Campers also toured different locations at the university every day including the bioengineering lab and the Brauer Art Museum, Wertz said.
“It’s not that every single girl will become an engineer but we’re training engineer thinking,” Wertz said.
Morgan Ripley, 8, a third-grader at Walker Charter School in Walker, Michigan, said she screamed when she first saw the replica of R2D2 but said the presentation was a highlight of her week at the camp.
“My brother will be so jealous and so will my dad,” Ripley said.
Grace Lottich, 8, of Valparaiso, a third-grader who is home schooled, said she likes science and engineering and loved attending the camp.
“I had a lot of fun learning about solar panels and I liked the field trips,” Lottich said.
Treble, who took two years to build his replica, said he enjoys visiting schools, summer programs, churches and other events to see the various reactions of kids and to teach them the basics about engineering, programming and machining.
On Friday, Treble gave insight into R2D2 including how the droid was put together, the type of music programmed to play and even how the droid was made to look dirty like the one in the “Star Wars” movie.
“He was super clean when done and didn’t look right so I made him look dirty or more weathered,” Treble said.
For more information about next year’s camp, contact Wertz at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 219-464-6965.