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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

May 17, 2007

Working hard to make sure kids love engineering

by Mike Krapfl, News Service

Camille Sloan Schroeder

Camille Sloan Schroeder. Photo by Bob Elbert.

The 6- to 9-year-olds skipped and ran to the front of the room for their awards and high fives.

It was the awards ceremony for last January's Junior FIRST LEGO League competition. Young people were picking up accolades for their interest in science and technology, their ability to look for solutions, their smart decisions, their teamwork and all the research it took to prepare for the competition.

And, there in the background - wearing a white lab coat like the rest of the competition's planning team, but skipping the silly hats favored by the others - was Camille Sloan Schroeder.

It's her job to coordinate these competitions and other outreach and education events for the College of Engineering. And that's no small task: Every winter the Iowa FIRST LEGO League Championship brings about 700 kids to campus.

Then there are summer engineering camps to organize. Science night visits to schools. Field trips to campus. Special events. There's always something happening at Iowa State Engineering Kids.

It all added up to 77 events last year and contact with 31,500 potential Iowa State engineering students.

Schroeder said all those programs are designed to "get engineering into the minds of young people. We want to get young kids interested in coming to Iowa State and the College of Engineering."

So, when she stepped from the background and said a few words during one of the LEGO League ceremonies last winter, this is what she had to say: "I hope you all have a great day. Have a fabulous time. And come back and visit us at Iowa State."

The evolution of a job

Schroeder's career path wasn't aimed at the College of Engineering.

A graduate of Ogden High School, Schroeder went to the AIB College of Business in Des Moines to study court reporting and paralegal work. When she finished, she took a detour to Hawaii and work in a cruise line's office for marine operations. That's where she was introduced to the world of engineers and engineering.

Then it was off to Rapid City, S.D., to work for an organization that helped at-risk girls. When she started a family, she moved back to Iowa and found jobs assisting school administrators. She went back to school and earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from William Penn University. Eight years ago, she took a job as an office secretary in the College of Engineering.

"That position grew and grew into what it is now," said Schroeder, whose official title is the college's director of K-12 engineering outreach and education. "This job changes a lot."

Some of the big changes started happening when a student asked if there was some money to establish a FIRST LEGO League team at Ames Middle School. (LEGO League is an international program created by FIRST - For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology - a nonprofit organization based in New Hampshire and The LEGO Group, the Denmark-based toy manufacturer.)

Schroeder checked to see if a National Science Foundation grant to promote science and technology education would cover a team and a small tournament. It turned out it would, so Schroeder helped the student coordinate a four-team tournament in 2000.

That led to an official 14-team tournament in 2002. And that's grown to a 70-team tournament that sends winners to the FIRST LEGO League's World Festival. If she and her staff of students had more space, Schroeder said they could put on a 100-team tournament.

Fun . . . and a lot of work

"Yes it's fun," Schroeder said. "It's an amazing way to get kids excited about engineering and science."

But it's also a lot of work. When the youngest of her and husband Craig's four children was born last fall, Schroeder sent e-mails to her part-time staff of six students from the hospital.

Brandon Newendorp, who just earned a bachelor's degree in computer engineering and is about to start Iowa State's graduate program in human computer interaction, said it was no big surprise Schroeder sent e-mails from the hospital.

"She's very passionate about what she's doing," he said. "Everybody recognizes the growing need for engineers in the United States and the importance of getting kids excited about engineering and science. She's trying to show them engineering is a cool thing to do."

Newendorp shares the passion for that work.

He said one of the reasons he's staying at Iowa State is so he can continue working with Schroeder to plan the FIRST LEGO League competition. He likes how Schroeder communicates with the young children and is willing to embrace new technologies.

And the events list keeps growing

Schroeder's job continues to evolve.

This summer, her office will coordinate its first summer teaching institute for Project Lead the Way, an organization that has developed a pre-engineering curriculum for middle- and high-school students. The program will bring about 60 teachers - most of them from Iowa, but some from around the country - to campus for a two-week boot camp that will feature work with Iowa State faculty and a master teacher.

Next February, Schroeder's office will coordinate its first Vex challenge. The high school robotics competition also was created by FIRST and features teams of 10 students who have to work with allied teams. The first contest at Iowa State will feature 24 teams from Iowa and around the region.

So, yes, Schroeder has a lot more to organize this summer and fall.

But she says it's not her organization skills that keep all these events going and growing.

"It's amazing to me," she said. "If there weren't Iowa State students interested and committed and enjoying this, it so would not happen. They love doing it."

Take Jake Ingman, the emcee for the FIRST LEGO League contests. He earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in human computer interaction. And degrees in hand, he stuck around Schroeder's office for nine months to help with the contest.


"It was the best job I'll ever have," said Ingman, who now works in St. Paul, Minn., as a freelance consultant who develops user interfaces for computer applications. "It was an ideal situation. I loved my boss and I loved my boss's boss and I got to run the coolest program in the world."

The thing about working for Schroeder and her boss, Loren Zachary, Engineering's assistant dean for undergraduate programs, was they refused to micromanage, Ingman said. And they were open to trying new ideas and approaches.

So when Ingman suggested they put together videos explaining the differences between LEGO's two robot systems - a la the Mac vs. PC commercials on television - Schroeder said yes and helped make it happen.

It's no wonder, Ingman said, that when the FIRST LEGO League threw a VIP dinner during its World Festival two years ago, Schroeder was recognized as a "FIRST Champion."

"This dinner was full of super-cool people," he said. "And those people were making sure they recognized Camille."


"She's very passionate about what she's doing. Everybody recognizes the growing need for engineers in the United States and the importance of getting kids excited about engineering and science. She's trying to show them engineering is a cool thing to do."

- Brandon Newendorp