Date December 18, 2023
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Brown’s Society of Women Engineers brings X-treme Gingerbread Competition to local Girl Scouts

Beyond the chance to make, shake and snack on the houses, the gingerbread challenge builds confidence, sparks creativity and hones essential engineering skills in Rhode Island Girl Scouts.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Building the perfect gingerbread house requires much more than golden graham crackers, a generous helping of icing and colorful candies.

It demands patience, precision, creativity, problem-solving and teamwork.

That's precisely what two dozen Rhode Island Girl Scouts discovered on Sunday, Dec. 17, when they vied for gingerbread glory at the X-treme Gingerbread Competition held in Warwick, R.I., at the Girl Scouts of Southeastern New England council headquarters.

The afternoon event was led by Brown University's student-led Society of Women Engineers.

The chapter — which has partnered with the Girl Scouts for nearly a decade to bring new programming to local troops — organized the holiday treat showdown to introduce local girls to the fundamentals of engineering in a unique, fun and festive way.

Caroline Snyder, a Brown senior and the society’s outreach director, said constructing a gingerbread house requires the same planning and design that engineers consider when they create buildings, albeit on a smaller scale, fostering a practical and hands-on learning experience.

"To get the girls started, we go over some basic concepts of structural support — how thick the walls should be or how big a foundation it should have — which are all basic mechanical engineering principles," Snyder said. "Even though they're building gingerbread houses, the same principles apply to a real house."

The council's leadership center was buzzing with excitement as the young Girl Scouts settled into teams of three and four and eagerly lined up at the tables stocked with an array of marshmallows, pretzels, gumdrops, chocolates and various other gummy candies and sweet treats. Boxes of graham crackers and cans of frosting were neatly arranged, waiting to be transformed into edible yet structurally sound masterpieces. With one hour on the clock, the teams, which included scouts ranging in ages from kindergarten to fifth-graders, set out to build the ultimate gingerbread house guided and encouraged by the Brown students, who served as co-architects and advisors.

At the hour's close, Brown's engineering students judged each house on design, creativity and mechanical integrity. In addition, the sweet structures, one by one, faced a final test: each would need to withstand a simulated earthquake created by a shake table. While each gingerbread house ultimately collapsed under the additional pressure, some took as long as 25 seconds of shaking before coming to a final fall.

Circe Ernest, a third-grader with Troop 44 in Warwick, watched her team’s gingerbread creation collapse in nine seconds and said she learned that the house's foundation is vital for stability.

"I learned that you need a good structure to hold up all of the decorations and icing," Ernest said. "I also learned that teamwork is the best solution."

Amy Burt, program manager for outdoor experience and STEM for the Girl Scouts of Southeastern New England, said the fun culinary battle is about much more than demonstrating expert craftsmanship. The event exposes young girls to practical aspects of STEM while fostering critical thinking, problem-solving and resourcefulness. 

"The gingerbread competition provides enriching STEM experiences interwoven with elements of fun, camaraderie and a friendly competition, all sweetened by the joy of creativity and sugar," Burt said. "The Girl Scouts absorb these experiences, developing essential skills like resilience, problem-solving and a sense of accomplishment, valuable not only for future educational pursuits but also for personal interests and hobbies. Those skills will play out well after today's event ends."

The Girl Scouts and the Society of Women Engineers hope to make the gingerbread competition an annual event. Most recently, the two organizations have collaborated to help fill the council's programming gaps. With support from Brown, for the first time in years, the council has offered its "Journey in a Day" program to Cadette Girl Scouts. The journeys are multi-session experiences in which Girl Scouts do hands-on activities, connect with experts and take the lead on a "Take Action" project that positively impacts the community.

And this month, Brown's Society of Women Engineers members led a "Think Like an Engineer Journey in a Day" program in which 30 local Girl Scouts completed three design and prototype challenges: a life vest for a dog, a model camp cabin inspired by nature, and a prosthetic leg for an elephant.

"The challenge I gave to SWE was to help us fill an area of need — Journeys in a Day for our Cadettes hasn't been offered at the council level in quite some time," Burt said. "The Society of Women Engineers at Brown were ready to jump in and bring their ideas and experiences to the program to enhance the activities for the Girl Scouts. As one person in this role, finding community partners like Brown who are eager to share their passion and support the Girl Scouts is incredibly valuable. I cannot express my gratitude enough."

By partnering with community organizations and school districts, the Society of Women Engineers aims to expose more local kids to engineering, Snyder said.

"First and foremost, we want the kids to have fun and to see that engineering is fun," Snyder said. "We also want them to be aware that there are a lot of different kinds of engineering and where they can see engineering in their everyday lives — whether it's electrical engineering and cell phones; or it's mechanical engineering, the way that houses are built; or biomedical engineering, how is the COVID vaccine designed and things like that. Ultimately, we hope to show students that they can become leaders in whatever field they choose.”

At the X-treme Gingerbread Competition with the Girl Scouts of Southeastern New England, the society accomplished its goal of creating a fun afternoon for kids.

Delaney Saraidarian, a fifth-grader with Troop 556 in Bellingham, Mass., said it was a joyful and delicious experience.

"I had fun decorating the gingerbread house, and I really liked eating it, too."