Engineering is more than levers and pulleys; it's a creative skill that can affect every level of society.
That was the message at the Colorado Engineering Summit on Saturday as students, college staff and local employers milled about the Freedom Financial Services Expo Center. The event was aimed at connecting students with information and opportunities related to science, technology, engineering and math.
"I wish there was something like this when I was in high school," said Nadine Sundquist, 28, a former Sand Creek High School student who completed her undergraduate and graduate work in computer science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Sundquist is now a software engineer at Hewlett-Packard and president of the southern Colorado branch of the worldwide Society of Women Engineers.
Joe Dattilo, self-described "king of the nerds," and others from Colorado Technical University stayed up until 4 a.m. the night before the summit, building a dirt battery with plastic tubes, using the acidity from the soil to power a small LED light.
CTU students flew a quadricopter, a four-propeller drone, and a miniature Tesla coil that wirelessly powered a handheld fluorescent light.
The fourth annual event was twice as large as last year, organizers said, with 140 community and education engineers. Several area colleges and universities, as well as West Middle School and Sand Creek High School, had booths to promote STEM education.
Students from a 22-member Sand Creek team, which recently won a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam award, showcased parts of their water filtration project, meant to address a lack of clean water in Haiti.
Members of the team tested crushed clay, coconut husk and rice hull ash in repurposed 2-liter bottles, with sand as a control variable, in hope of finding a simple water filter that residents of La Gon?e, Haiti, a small island, can construct using native resources.
The team, the first from Colorado to win the award, found that rice hull ash filters water the fastest, at a rate of one liter every 45 seconds, while clay produces the clearest water. They will present their findings at the program's festival in June.
"It helps show people how broad engineering really is," said senior Eric Metcalf, 18, who is head of construction for the project. Metcalf said the summit, which he has attended all four years, opened his eyes to engineering and demonstrates that anyone can be an engineer.
David Hirsh, a senior mechanical engineering student at Colorado School of Mines, showed off his backpack chair - a 20-pound backpack that turns into a chair without leaving the wearer's shoulders. He designed the chair in his last year of high school at Sand Creek.
How many high school seniors are interested in a STEM career or are good at math?
Only 16 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Of those that pursue STEM-focused college degrees, 48 percent switch to other programs, and half of those don't finish, per a November study from the DOE's National Center for Education Statistics.
"Some of those people just need a little more support than they're offered," said Todd Matia, founder of the summit. "You don't need to be great at math or science to invent something, but we need those pieces, too. That's what's made our country strong."
Matia cited changing interests, lack of preparation at the high school and college level as well as little information about STEM fields as top reasons people fall out of the industry.
Companies such as Lockheed Martin and Halliburton, which largely funded the summit, are strong supporters of such events because they can't find enough talent to fill jobs, said Matia, a Sand Creek pre-engineering and math teacher of 14 years.
"The reality is that we have a ton of engineering positions and jobs open . but there's not qualified people to take those jobs."