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By designing flood shelters and underwater robots, girls solve real-world problems at the STEM Summer Institute

By MC Claverie '20
Harpeth Hall Communications Intern

On a sunny June morning, a group of high-school-aged girls sat spread out around the first floor of the Bullard Bright IDEA Lab. Armed with blue and green Expo markers, these girls started to identify problems and challenges caused by flooding in Middle Tennessee and brainstorm solutions as part of their STEM Summer Institute experience.

Founded in 2013, the STEM Summer Institute (SSI) is a two week camp at Harpeth Hall that brings together rising 6th-12th grade girls from around Middle Tennessee with the goal of solving real-world problems by creating, building, and testing their own prototype solutions.

Each summer, the students explore a different topic or problem to solve. In past years, these projects have focused on a partnership with the Lwala Community Alliance in Lwala, Kenya. Student projects have included everything from creating hand-washing stations for communities in need to designing birthing beds for the women Lwala serves. This summer, SSI had a new, more local, focus — flooding in Middle Tennessee.

Jennifer Webster, a Harpeth Hall math and computer science teacher and the director of STEM Summer Institute said that one reason SSI chose to focus on flooding in Middle Tennessee is not only because of its local significance — calamitous flooding left Nashville underwater in 2010 and submerged Waverly in 2021 — but also because the devastation expands as a national and international problem many communities face.

“We felt this would be a topic that the girls could really connect with,” she said. “A lot of them know people who were affected by one of these flooding events. Even beyond Middle Tennessee, they have family who live in New Orleans and places like that, and even in other countries, we have a lot of international students and they mentioned flooding in other parts of the world. So it's relatable, it's current, it's local. All of these things make it important.”

The addition of the Bullard Bright IDEA Lab, which opened in January 2022, provided the students with tools and resources that were used in both the brainstorming, building, and trial processes. Mrs. Webster said that not only did it provide a great place for collaboration between smaller groups of students, but allowed students to have quick and easy access to all of the materials needed for their projects. Some of the favorite activities among the students were concrete pouring and working in the the robotics lab.

SSI is split up into two groups based on age — middle school and high school. In the high school group, girls spent the first part of the camp learning about what causes flooding and what consequences it can have on both the community and environment. In a brainstorming session, the students began to think about ways to spread awareness about the dangers of flooding and prepare people for floods by creating flood kits and implementing flood prevention and evacuation procedures.

For some of the students in the high school group, this was not their first time attending SSI. Last summer, rising senior Marium Akbar decided to attend SSI after her sister completed the program. This summer, Akbar said she even put some of her AP Environmental Science to use when starting to brainstorm her project and potential solutions and policy change regarding flooding.

“This is a really unique experience, I get to design something on my own. I get to build something with my own hands, which I never got to do before,” Akbar said. “It was my first time having hands-on experience with something that I could actually benefit from and that other people can benefit from, which is something I want to do in the future.”

On the other side of Souby Lawn in the middle school science classrooms, the middle school group spent the first part of the camp planning their projects by sketching out designs and researching ways to execute their designs.

One project idea was creating a model of a 3D flood shelter dome complete with a remote control flood barrier with a water runoff system around the outside of the dome. Other ideas included a hydro-powered, airbag raft that could be stored in cars to help trapped drivers escape, an underwater robot to deliver provisions when roads are flooded, and a flood safe house stocked with provisions for anyone to access.

In the latter half of the camp, students in both groups worked on designing and building their projects. On the last day of the camp, the students dressed up nicely and presented their prototype designs to judges and other visitors in a final showcase.

“It's just kind of a shining moment to get to see all of their hard work and what they've learned over the past couple of weeks and then the great ideas that they came up with, as well as how they articulate that to others,” Mrs. Webster said. “It's just such a fun experience.”