Engineering the Future

Kids of all ages are invited to experience what it means to be an engineer at annual outreach opportunities hosted by NDSU's College of Engineering.

Story by Micaela Gerhardt | Photos by Ann Arbor Miller | August 28, 2023

An engineer is someone who ___________.

(A) Builds things,
(B) Thinks of things for stuff to work,
(C) Works with machines, or
(D) Tries something again and again

All of the above, according to the third through fifth grade students in the Rockin’ Robots class at the NDSU College of Engineering STEM Kids Camp, held annually in the summer.

Emily Balluff ’23, a mechanical engineering student who currently leads NDSU’s rocket propulsion design team, taught the Rockin’ Robots class. On the first day of camp, she asked her students to fill in the blank. Then, she delivered the mic drop.

“An engineer is a problem-solver,” Emily said. “You can be an engineer at any point in your life. Kids can be engineers — amazing engineers — because they have very unique ways of solving things. Some people, like me, choose to get a degree in engineering to learn more about it, but really anyone can be an engineer. Engineering isn’t a job, it’s a way of thinking.”

NDSU student Emily Balluff '23 teaches camp participants how to use time-based coding commands to make their robots break dance.

The STEM Kids Camp, hosted by the College of Engineering, is designed to spark kids’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in a fun, hands-on environment. NDSU students, faculty, staff, and local schoolteachers lead classes like Rockin’ Robots, STEM in Space, Chemistry Chaos, Crime Scene Science, Creative Computer Coding, City Superheroes, and more, inviting kids in grades K-8 to explore new ideas and gain confidence interacting with STEM subjects. The College of Engineering also offers a STEM camp targeted toward high school students called Exploring Engineering.

“Every child has that innate sense of wonder about our world and how it works,” Angela Gross, outreach coordinator for the College of Engineering, said. “With the help of some expert educators, we were able to expand our offerings this year. Because of that, we saw a marked increase in the cultural and educational diversity of our student population. This is exactly what we want our camp to be — that opportunity for any student to dive in and explore those things they are curious about.”

NDSU civil engineering faculty Trung Le and Ying Huang taught the City Superheroes class for students in grades six through eight. Trung is an assistant professor and director of NDSU’s Computational Fluids Lab, and Ying is a professor and Welch Faculty Fellow. Both are also parents of young children who have attended the STEM Kids Camp; the experience flamed an interest in chemistry for Ying’s 7-year-old daughter, who especially liked mixing different chemical concoctions.

Trung knows from experience the importance of meeting experts in the field who can expose young people to new ideas and inspire their passions. When he was a high school student, Trung’s mom took him to meet a renowned researcher and professor of water resources engineering. After a three-hour discussion with the professor, Trung realized he wanted to spend his life learning more about water resources engineering. Now, he hopes he can help his students discover passions of their own.

“I wish I could have had that discussion with more professors — it could have given me more opportunities to think about a different kind of discipline,” Trung said. “Kids can’t really be passionate about something they’ve never seen. From our side [as teachers], we just show the option, and they should discover their passion by being exposed to those options. It’s very difficult when [adults] say, ‘Follow your passion,’ but you don’t really know: What are all the options on the table?”

Aavahan Nanda and Isabel Haas work together to build and code LEGO robots.

This resonates with Emily as well, who dreamed of being an astronaut when she was growing up — or something where she could explore, invent, and put her love of science and math to work. But it wasn’t until the seventh grade, when one of her teachers showed a video of a girl setting up a Rube Goldberg machine, a complex chain reaction that accomplishes a simple task (think the board game Mouse Trap), that Emily heard — and understood — the word “engineer.” She was dazzled.

“I was like, that’s a word for what I’m trying to do!” Emily said. “Most kids, when they’re that young, don’t think, ‘I’m going to be an engineer,’ because a lot of people, even adults, don’t know what an engineer is or what they truly do. Kids understand what a nurse does, or a doctor, but with an engineer, kids can’t really visualize that.”

Introducing young people to STEM concepts before they make a college choice is critical for developing a strong pipeline of future engineers and problem-solvers across disciplines. By offering a variety of outreach opportunities targeted toward K-12 students, NDSU’s College of Engineering hopes to help students explore different degree programs, pathways, and careers with confidence and enthusiasm.

“I want them to walk out thinking engineering is not a big, scary thing,” Emily said. “I want them to look at something and try to figure out how it works. I want them to learn how to try, how to solve, how to troubleshoot. Even if they end up not being an engineer, I want them to learn those skills.

“Society’s gotten so much better at introducing engineering to kids earlier and earlier in life. I just get really excited, because I know future generations of engineers are going to be that much better.”

City Superheroes

Trung and Ying introduced sixth through eighth grade students to civil engineering concepts, from buildings to bridges, rivers to pipelines, and more in the City Superheroes class. They began the week by simulating the formation of rivers, making channels out of sand, and creating flooding conditions to mimic the movement of water through the Red River watershed.

On the second day, the students built their own paper cities connected by roads and bridges. Then, disaster struck; the city superheroes became the city villains. What horror befell their handcrafted metropolises, you might ask?

“Some stuff we’re not proud of,” Grant, a sixth grader, joked. He was referring to a contraption he and his friend Sam, also a sixth grader, had built to launch popsicle sticks at their city.

“They were very creative,” Ying said, laughing. “I was very proud of them.”

The class continued to build on students’ understanding of city infrastructure. They learned how water flows through pipes, and on the last day, Ying explained how pipelines can accrue defects.

“Pipes can bend and become another shape. They can be dented. Chemical reactions can cause corrosion and erosion,” she said, “but it can be hard to find damages.”

This is where pipeline inspection gauges (PIGs) come in handy. Grant and Sam immediately dove into the construction of their own robotic smart PIGs, laying out each of the pieces and patiently following along with an instruction manual.

“Take your time,” Sam said, giving advice to someone building a robot for the first time. “There’s a lot of things that you don’t want to mess up — say you put a part in the wrong spot, and you don’t realize. You have to pay attention to which pieces are which. I mean, there could be like one thing different, and it does something completely different. You want to know what you’re doing.”

Trung sees immense value in giving students the chance to explore engineering-based activities beyond what they might be exposed to in everyday life, but he also sees the STEM Kids Camp as an important learning opportunity for faculty. As STEM subjects become a greater priority in K-12 classrooms, and technology evolves and becomes more widely distributed, upcoming generations will need to be taught according to their unique needs and points of view.

“We want to understand their way of interacting with the material, because they live in a very different world than where we grew up,” Trung said. “We want to understand their curiosity, their viewpoint, so we can adapt and improve our future lectures, because they’re going to be the people who come to our college in the next six or seven years.”

Rockin' Robots

Third through fifth grade students in the Rockin’ Robots class spent the week learning the foundations of robotics and finding real coding solutions using LEGO Education SPIKE kits. Emily, who developed a passion for robotics after joining a FIRST Robotics team in high school, bubbled with enthusiasm as she described the “anatomy” of a robot.

“The circuit board acts like the brain. The code is the knowledge that’s going into the brain,” she said. “Then you have your actuators, or manipulators, which are your mechanical things. These are your arms and legs of the robot. The electrical system, all of those wires and everything, that’s like your nervous system going through your body.”

Throughout the week, the kids designed robots that could hop, dance, and do situps. By the final day, they were coding autonomous vehicles made of Legos, programming them to drive a square route around their table before racing their classmates’ cars in an all-out competition — and they were facing some bugs.

“In engineering school, you’re taught to think like an engineer, because they can’t prepare us for every problem that’s going to come our way,” Emily explained to the class. “We need to be able to think on our feet, and using our education, go in the right direction and figure out how to solve it.”

Harper, a fourth grader, watched her robot take one too many close turns and crash into a LEGO box on the table.

“It’s hard to code a robot!” she exclaimed, but continued to try to adjust the speed and turns in the code.

Nearby, Nikolas and Bennett, both third graders, were rebuilding their robot for a third time, after it repeatedly turned too late, causing it to crash onto the floor. While they reconfigured their busted robot, they imagined what other kinds of robots they could one day create; Nikolas would like to make a robot that could do his homework, and Bennett would like to make a robot that could dispense infinite Oreos and money.

With their robot rebuilt, they started debugging the coding and shared their favorite parts of the week.

“We learned about how vehicles work and how they are coded. You have to be very specific about how you talk to them to get them to do stuff. We’re also learning about many types of engineers,” Nikolas said.

“I had a really good time, and I made some new friends,” Bennett added.

Is your child interested in STEM? NDSU’s College of Engineering hosts a variety of K-12 outreach programs throughout the year. Visit to learn more.

Share This Story

Related Stories

5 Colleges, 3 Questions

Campus leaders cast their transformative vision for the future and share how NDSU alumni, friends, and industry partners can get involved.

Read More