CURIE Academy fuels girls' passion for engineering

Students, professor looking at computer
Jesse White
Noah Snavely, associate professor of computer science, works with high school students on their graphics programming project during the 2015 CURIE Academy.
face recognition
CURIE Academy scholars wrote a program to detect faces in a webcam image, and stabiize on the faces.
fish negatives
Making a color image into a negative was one of a dozen projects CURIE scholars pursued after a crash course in programming.
halftone picture
You can use a built-in feature of Photoshop to convert an image to a halftone for printing, but students in the CURIE Academy wrote their own.

If you were a high school girl interested in science and engineering you might feel a bit out of the mainstream, so it could be exciting to suddenly find yourself in a room with a crowd of other girls all interested in the same things.

That’s just part of the experience of the CURIE Academy, a program that brings high school junior and senior girls to the Cornell campus every summer for a week of exposure to engineering as a career, including an opportunity to do some real engineering on their own.

“A sense of community is something really nice to feel when you’re in high school,” said Chelsea Morris, a graduate student in biological and environmental engineering who acted as housing director for the CURIE scholars, who were on campus July 12-18.

“Being in a group with 51 other girls that share some of the same interests as me is absolutely amazing,” said Lynn Tu, who came from California. Although she lives in Silicon Valley where she can find other girls interested in computers and engineering, she said, here she was able to connect with some who shared her interest in geology and earth science. Cornell is now her No. 1 dream school, she added.

“All of them were passionate and dreamed BIG like me,” put in Somya Arora, who decided to apply after learning that the week would include a programming class. She had planned to spend the summer learning a new programming language.

This year, 52 girls attended – 13 from New York and others from Texas, California and Switzerland – the largest class since the program was created in 2000. CURIE Academy is named for Marie Curie, discoverer of radium, who had to overcome significant resistance to the idea of a woman in science. Admission is competitive: Applicants must have a GPA of at least 3.0. Scholarships are available to cover tuition and room and board.

Each day the CURIE scholars attended lectures by members of the Cornell engineering faculty explaining what the various engineering fields are about. Afternoons were spent in a workshop led by Noah Snavely, associate professor of computer science, in which they learned to program in MATLAB, a specialized computer language used in science and engineering.

Evenings were for community building through fun and games. A scavenger hunt led the visitors on a tour of North Campus. A barbecue at Treman State Park was serendipitously held the day after a heavy rain, so they got to see the falls at its best. One evening was spent scaling the Lindseth Climbing Wall.

But the hard core of the week was the opportunity to learn a new skill. After a crash course in MATLAB – for some, the first time writing computer code in any language – the scholars formed small teams and created programs to manipulate digital images. They repaired old, damaged photos, modified colors and added whimsical special effects.

That was the best part for Rebecca Holstein, who lamented the fact that her high school offered few courses related to engineering. From the programming class, she said, “I gained confidence in what I was capable of doing. With any dream that is blocked with a problem, I know with time this dream can be built into a reality. That is what engineering means to me.”

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John Carberry