This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Hudson Middle School is very much in summer mode.

The halls are quiet and empty and, in a few places, strung with caution tape, indicating the million little improvements the school has saved for the summer. Even the principal, on Thursday, was in the main office rearranging furniture and priming a wall for paint.

But that same day, down a couple of hallways and across a courtyard, 13 robots were zipping across the tile.Twenty-six kids from middle schools across the county built and programmed the bots, as part of an engineering camp led by two of the district’s Project Lead the Way teachers, one from Hudson Middle and one from Happy Valley and Collettsville Schools.

The kids used a basic, drag-and-drop computer programming system to give the robot directions – whether it would turn left or right, move forward or backward, or respond to sound, for example. They’d been assigned the task of guiding the robots along a square of black tape – which was, several campers said, not as simple as it sounds.

The camp, which ran from Monday through Thursday, wasn’t just about robots. The students also designed, engineered and built shoes that had to stand up to distance walking, jumping and stair-climbing without falling apart. They built and launched rockets. On Thursday, their lunch (hot dogs, of course – this is a camp for kids) was steamed in solar cookers they constructed from Pringles cans.

The camp’s two instructors – Rachel Pierson and Angela Raby – said the only thing the camp really needed was more girls participating.

Of the 26 students who registered for the engineering camp, 23 of them were male. And that’s not an uncommon phenomenon, Pierson said. Project Lead the Way classes are dictated by the school schedule, but any voluntary-attendance programs see participation that’s heavily male.

“Any camp situation, if it’s billed as engineering, has a tendency to be more boys than girls,” she said.

Of course, the problem isn’t that girls can’t handle the work. For many, it’s simply intimidating to enter a field that’s historically been so dominated by males, Pierson said. But if you can get them started in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, girls often find a niche, she said.

“Once they get into it and see that it’s not intimidating, then they think, ‘Yeah, I can do this,’” she said.

On Thursday, a robot programmed by the three girls at the Hudson Middle camp had one of the most advanced programming quirks of the group: When they clapped in front of it, the bot not only moved, it made a sneezing noise.

Before long, they were teaching the other teams — all composed of boys — how to do the noise programming as well.