College Place Liz Ortiz and Lorena Esquivel turned to each other for support as they each assembled their Hyper Peppy robotic vehicles. The girls, both 16, read each other the directions, helped each other find and then screw in the right pieces, and waited to make sure they were on the same steps.
"This is actually my first time, so it's kind of a struggle," said Ortiz, early into putting her robot together. "But it's entertaining, learning something new, how to build something."
The girls were among 15 high school students taking part in the second annual Hispanic Youth Exploring Engineering and Sciences camp at Walla Walla University.
Kicking off Monday and running through today, the teens have spent their days at the Edward F. Cross School of Engineering learning about the field.
Doug Logan, dean of the engineering school, said following the success of last year's camp, the university opened its doors for a second year. The camp is co-hosted by WWU and Bonneville Power Administration, and is coordinated by Bill Erickson, natural resource specialist for Bonneville Power Administration, and his wife, Diana.
On Monday, the students got a tour of the college, and met with several professors from the engineering program. The professors introduced some of the disciplines in engineering through lectures and demonstrations.
"Then they have things like bridge building, and robots and rockets to get some hands-on experiences," Logan said.
Walla Walla students have in the past attended the HYEES camp held over the summer at Washington State University, free of charge. When funding that supported the program was cut last year, an idea was raised to host a similar camp at Walla Walla University.
Erickson organized last year's camp so local students would still benefit from learning about science and engineering on a college campus. Funding for the camp comes from BPA, WWU and Exploring Post 311. Camp partners include Walla Walla Community College, Nelson Irrigation, Columbia REA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Walla Walla County Sheriff's Office.
The Ericksons then recruited students who would benefit from the exposure.
The camp began as a way to expose underserved students to possible careers in engineering or sciences. It has grown to include life-skills and leadership training and goal setting, with an eye toward reaching higher education.
On Thursday, students visited Walla Walla Community College, where they learned about environmental sciences and careers in health fields. Students heard from guest speakers throughout the week and covered topics ranging from diversity to building character to leadership and motivation. There was even time dedicated to talking about applying for college and financial aid options.
Diana Erickson said the camp targets Latino youths who would greatly benefit from the experience of an academic camp. Many of the attendees come from homes where their parents have not finished high school, let alone college.
The hands-on activities are often new experiences for the students.
"None of them have necessarily built a bridge, or constructed a robot," Diana Erickson said. "We find by having these hands-on projects, it builds confidence. It's complicated, and then they finish it. It gives them a sense of accomplishment."
The robot exercise took about two hours of building Tuesday, and then the students had a few minutes to race the small vehicles around a table with raised edges that Bill Erickson built for the camp.
Jaime Martinez, an incoming senior at Touchet School, was one of the first students finished, but had to readjust the wheels on the vehicle before it gave a smooth run.
"I didn't tighten the wheels down enough," he said.
Students found that wheels that were too loose made a significant impact on how the robots ran. Each robot vehicle included a sound sensor, causing it to switch directions and make a sharp turn with the clap of a hand, or after slamming into one of the table's raised sides.
The Ericksons have dedicated years to empowering Latino youths in the community toward higher education, with particular emphasis put on exploring sciences. The Ericksons are regular volunteers with the Latino Club at Walla Walla High School and did much of the recruiting for the camp through the club.
They said the camps have had a positive impact on students' educations.
"Almost all of them have gone on to college," Diana Erickson said.