Young women see themselves in aero/astro careers


Debra Levey Larson

Zoom screen shot of campers and leaders
Zoom screen shot of the leaders and over 20 campers who participated in an aerospace engineering related summer camp.

Rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors in high school from 10 different states participated in an aerospace engineering focused camp this past month, held virtually. The camp is called Engineers Aiming for Gender Equity and Representation.

“In this particular camp, the participants are almost always female,” said Brian Woodard. “We hire female undergrad and graduate students to lead the sessions and we bring in female alumni to give presentations about their work. We want the campers to see that STEM isn’t only for boys.”

Woodard is on the faculty in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has served as director of the camps since 2011. He said he hopes in addition to learning more about aerospace, campers will enjoy getting a taste of the university and choose to apply to Illinois when they begin looking at colleges, but that’s not the sole purpose of the camp.

“The campers take a pre-test on the first day to learn what knowledge they each bring to the table so that we can adjust the content as needed,” Woodard said. “On the last day, they take the same test again. It’s always great to see how much they learn in the course of a week.”

Woodard led sessions, along with undergraduate students Seetha Chalichama and Zana Essmyer, and graduate student Tove Kopperstad.

The camp met Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and included lectures and demonstrations on topics ranging from aerodynamics to composite materials to orbital mechanics.

One of the sessions featured a panel of graduate students who are also recent graduates from AE at Illinois.

“This was a great group of people who had been past participants or instructors for the camp and who are now in grad school at other universities. They spent about 45 minutes with the campers talking about their experiences.”

The panelists were: Katie Carroll, BS ’19 and MS ’21 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Suzanne Peterson, BS ’19, now in a PhD program at Texas A&M; and Kristen Bruchko, BS ’17, currently in a PhD program at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

Other guest speakers throughout the week included:
Jessica Hart, BS ‘18 - James Webb Space Telescope Operations Controller, Space Telescope Science Institute
Bella Watters, AE undergraduate – director of Illinois Space Society registered student organization
Cassandra Dickey, BS ’18 -Associate Technical Professional Systems Engineering, KBR
Theresa Saxton-Fox - professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at UIUC
Katie Qian, BS ’06 - director, Air Force Programs, Northrop Grumman Corporation


Two of this year’s campers shared their experiences from the week in a daily journal. Both of them stressed that the camp helped solidify their interest in continuing in the aerospace field.

Emma Martinez holding the glider she created during camp.
Emma Martinez holding the glider she created during camp.

Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Emma Martinez now lives in Champaign and will be a junior this fall at The High School of Saint Thomas More. On the last day of camp, a variety of awards were given. Having received 100 percent correct on her post-test, Martinez was given the award for the “Most Improved Aero Score.” 

Monday - UIUC students and alumni talked to us about their experiences. Then we were introduced to the glider and lander projects. Today I learned the difference between aeronautics and astronautics. Astronautics is more about exploring space and our atmosphere, like rockets and satellites. Aeronautics is more about exploring just our atmosphere, like airplanes and helicopters. Having students and alumni talk about their experiences really inspired me and showed me that my dream could be a reality.

Math has always been my favorite subject. Doing the calculations for the glider project had me thinking a lot. But everyone was so helpful. The math was harder than I thought but I asked my classmates and the students to help. I am glad I got a challenge today. I understood how to do it eventually. I really learned a lot from all of the former students. Everyone was so nice and it was so cool to get to know girls who have the same interests as me.

Tuesday - We learned about aerodynamics and flight mechanics and rocket propulsion. I think my favorite was rocket propulsion because I love space. Rockets are so huge so you need a lot of propulsion to lift it into space. We had guest speakers and I learned a lot from them. They talked about their jobs and what kind of engineer they are. I thought it was so cool. I want a job that I love. It seems like they found it and I want to find it, too. One of the guest speakers works for SpaceX and she works closely with NASA, which would be so cool. I think that is the most exciting job ever.

After all the guest speakers and lessons, we started planning our glider. I already did the calculations yesterday, so today I started cutting things out. I really felt like I was in college doing the calculations. They were complicated and had a lot of code words, so they looked harder than they actually were. Using code made me feel so cool. The cardboard was having a hard time sticking so I put tape just for some extra security. The TAs were really nice and patient. It was very fun building the glider and having other people to talk to.

Wednesday – Today we learned about orbits and missions. I would love to be a part of a mission. We met a teacher at UIUC and she was very nice and helpful. I am not really good at computers, like designing on a computer. But we got to logon to the computers in Talbot, remotely of course, and play around with the design. It was complicated but also really fun to do. We made 3D shapes and we made them different colors. Then we had a college prep lesson. I paid close attention to the lesson. I want to go to UIUC but I have to get in first and I’m nervous about that. The lesson was so informational and super helpful. UIUC is a great school. I have been to campus many times and I fell in love with it. College prep helped calm my nerves and helped me stop stressing so much about it.

Emma Martinez with her lander project.
Emma Martinez with her lander project.

After that, we worked on our lander project. My egg was named Primrose, and she was sent to Mars to collect soils or rocks. Unfortunately, my lander fell on its side during the landing and Primrose broke. But you live and you learn. Now I know what not to add to my lander and what to add to it.

Thursday - We had a guest speaker from the Air Force. She talked about all kinds of jobs she has had. We also learned that she went into the College of Business to help with engineering. I never would have thought that business and engineering would go together. My mom teaches business and whenever she tries to explain it to me, I get completely lost. So it was surprising to see how engineering and business can work together smoothly.

We also did aeronautics design and astronautics design. I liked the astronautics design better because of how huge you had to make everything. It was also fun to deal with the money and trying to stay under budget. I always forget that making a rocket is a multi-billion dollar project. It was a lot of math because of the money and how much fuel we needed. It really felt like we were preparing for a mission. I had a great time and I had a great team to help me with this mission.

It’s sad because this is the last day. I met some incredible people and some very smart girls. This camp has made it clear to me that this is what I want to do in life. This was a really fun camp, I wish it was in person but they figured out how to do it on Zoom.

I was confused about what type of engineering I wanted to do. This camp has really helped me figure that out. I am so in love with space and rockets. This is the college for me. Everyone was so friendly and kind this week. I really felt like I was a part of something. I met some amazing and funny girls. Even when I was struggling on the projects or the math, everyone was there to help. It was quite an amazing experience. I am so glad I got the chance to do this camp. I have learned so much and I hope to be one day an aerospace engineer.

Shreya Modak answering questions after her team's presentation during one of the camp sessions.
Shreya Modak answering questions after her team's presentation during one of the camp sessions.

Shreya Modak is from Pleasanton, California where she will be a junior at Amador Valley High School this fall. In searching for summer programs at colleges, the camp at UIUC was the only one she found that was specifically for aerospace, a field in which she would like to work. “I visited the Boeing factory in Washington state three years ago,” Modak said. “I fell in love with aeronautics the second the tour began, and I have been doing independent research and educating myself on the subject ever since.” 

Monday - I was not really sure how this whole “online” camp would go to start with so everything came as a surprise to me. Logging on the first day was a bit nerve racking as I knew I would have to interact with a bunch of people I had never met before. Even worse, it would be on Zoom, making the awkwardness more of an issue because some people never like to even have their cameras on much less unmute. But today I got to meet Dr. Woodard, Tove, Zana, and Seetha. They started out with a presentation on the very basics of what aerospace entails. We were given a Google form quiz on both aeronautics and astronautics to take to see where our knowledge and understandings were of each area. I made sure to take notes and loved how interesting the field sounded and what It had to offer. Based off the presentation, It only made me more hyped to get more hands-on into the field. We were also introduced to the two projects we would start this day—the glider project and the egg lander project. We started by working on our calculations for the glider and I worked on parts of my glider within the workshop working window and got as much advice I could from Seetha on how I wanted to design my wings. I learned a lot in the span of an hour!

Tuesday - I think today went amazing! I learned so much on both ends of the field regarding aerodynamics and rocket propulsion. Going into this I was specifically leaning towards aeronautics, but now I am really into rockets, space, and rocket propulsion. I love both sides equally and now I can’t tell which side I love more! I learned a lot and jotted down as much as I could from the presentations.

Shreya Modak's glider.
Shreya Modak's glider.

I continued to work on my glider today and made my wing design the most unique aspect of it! I curved the wings upward to provide more room for lift as I want my glider to go as far as possible. I also got to talk to the other girls more in the breakout rooms while making my glider! ‘

I got to hear more about what it was like to actually go through the process of grad school to go into doing more specific research and getting internships. I will consider UIUC as a definite option when I am applying to colleges next year, because all of the alumni have claimed nothing but the best for past opportunities for the aerospace students who go to UIUC.

Wednesday - Today I learned a lot more about orbital missions, as well as flight mechanics. I definitely think I am leaning towards the more “spacey” aspect of the field after hearing Zana’s presentation on orbital missions. It’s just so fascinating to see how many types of missions there are, the components to it, the history behind some of the most famous missions, and how much intuitive thought and math go into it to make them happen. The flight mechanics presentation also went a lot more into the specific details behind different parts of the plane that provide thrust and lift and I was really into the mathematics behind it.

I also worked on my glider’s finishing touches. It took some time, but I got my initial design to come to life and testing it out was super fun! I got it to go far and I bet my wing design really aided with that. I also tested my egg lander project and my egg survived! We also had a guest speaker who worked with the Illinois Space Society about their program. I was so jealous. I wished I could be a part of it in the future.

Thursday - This was the saddest day by far. I connected with a few of the girls really well and it hurt a lot that in a few hours, I was never gonna see them again. I got their contact info and hope to stay in touch with them!

One of the designs from Shreya Modak's team.
One of Shreya Modak's Team Starship designs. Other members included: Megan Bailey and Sofia De La Torre.  

We had two separate projects: one for astronautics design and one for aeronautics design. In both designs we were faced with a certain challenge that our object (plane, rover, etc.) had to deal with alongside some constraints in the materials that we picked to make them. Just like in the industry, engineers have a given budget and need to make sure they can make the best, most efficient design possible while also staying within their budget. My groups for both these design projects were really intuitive and we all worked very well in making our designs work past the budget constraints and face the challenges provided to us!

We also were given the same two quizzes on the Google form that I had mentioned on day one. We took them again to see how much our knowledge and understanding on them had improved since the start of the program. I honestly think I did 10 times better than when I had first taken it.

The awards ceremony was also super fun and I won some awards! I got “Most Creative Glider” and my group got an award for being best at completing our aeronautic design challenge!

What this program ensured for me is that aerospace is what I want to do with my life going forward. I was torn between aerospace and computer science, but between the amazing alumni speeches, guest speakers from aerospace companies, and the workings of Dr. Woodard and the other instructors, I know that this is what is right for me. I would recommend it to anyone considering aerospace as something they want to do in the future.

EAGER is one of the Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering Program camps offered by The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.