Engineers Week HORIZ

Tullahoma High School seniors Natalie Todaro, left, and Lila Saunders, took home top honors from the annual UTSI Engineers Week competition on Feb. 19. The two were tasked with designing and building an imitation Mars rover in just two hours, using everyday items such as string, paper clips, floral foam and Popsicle sticks.

While scientists with NASA continue to work on rovers that explore the surface of Mars, two Tullahoma High School seniors were recognized for their engineering skills at UTSI for a rover of their own.

Natalie Todaro and Lila Saunders designed and built the best imitation Mars rover during a competition held at the end of February for UTSI’s celebration of Engineers Week. The duo beat out 23 other teams from eight local high schools who all built their own rovers made from household items such as floral foam, paper clips and Popsicle sticks.

For their win, the students each received a $100 gift certificate, a free membership to the Hands-On Science Center and a framed, autographed photograph of UTSI alumni and NASA Astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, according to a press release from UTSI.


Engineers Week

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), Engineers Week was founded in 1951 in order to ensure a “diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce by increasing understanding of and interest in engineering and technology careers.”

EWeek, as it’s also known, now comprises of a coalition of more than 70 engineering, education and cultural societies, as well as more than 50 different corporations and government agencies. Together, they promote recognition among parents, teachers and students of “the importance of a technical education and a high level of math, science and technology literacy.”

That recognition helps to motivate students to pursue engineering careers, which can help lead to a “diverse and vigorous engineering workforce.” The week reaches thousands of schools, businesses and community groups across the nation, according to the NSPE.

This year’s EWeek was held from Feb. 17 to 23.


UTSI competition

According to UTSI, the competition was part of a number of events held to celebrate EWeek. Students were given two hours and a materials kit with some basic instructions and guidelines for their rover construction. What they did with the materials was up to them.

According to Natalie, the kit gave each team a premise and an objective to complete.

“Everyone was supposed to be on Mars [and] we were supposed to be designing a rover that could drop bombs so we could create an atmosphere,” she said.

Having to use everyday items to construct a mock rover was challenging but fun, according to Lila.

“It was really cool,” she said. “It was a fun insight to what engineering is like, like the trial and error you have to go through.”


Glimpse of the future

Both Lila and Natalie found the practical application of the skills they learned in class to be both helpful and fun.

“It was a real good way to figure out what engineering is like in the real world,” Natalie said. “People talk about it, but getting to experience it gave you a different viewpoint.”

Lila agreed, saying it was good to see how the skills they’ve learned would be used in their future careers.

Both ladies plan on entering the engineering field, though in different avenues. Natalie has her sights set on mechanical engineering, while Lila is anticipating a biomedical engineering career.

“I’m interested in mechanical engineering, like theme park rides and cars,” Natalie said, “so this was really cool because it was kind of up that alley.”

For Lila, the competition wasn’t precisely what she expects she’ll be doing in the future, but most of the basic engineering principles applied.

“I’m planning on biomedical engineering, which is different than what we did,” she said, but going through the trial and error processes was a familiar concept.


Surprise win

Both of the girls said they were shocked that they won, as they admired many of the other teams’ ideas.

“One group immobilized the back wheels [of their rover] and had their cart swing open and kind of dump [the bombs], which is something that we never thought of,” Natalie said. “There were so many unique ideas.”

Lila admitted the two believed cracking third place would be extraordinary, so being named the winner was amazing.

“We thought, at most, we’d get third,” she said. So when the third- and second-place winners were announced, the two thought that was it for them.

Despite the shock, both girls take pride in their win, as does their calculus teacher, Angela Murdock, who brought the girls to the competition.

“They were great representatives of our high school,” Murdock said. “They showed how they’re not just problem solvers but also great communicators.”

Murdock praised the girls’ communication skills as they debated which ideas to try and which ideas didn’t work out well.

“I was proud of their presentation and their listening and their new ideas,” Murdock added.

THS Principal Kathy Rose also applauded the girls’ accomplishments, saying she wasn’t surprised at the talent the duo displayed at the competition.

“I can’t say that I’m surprised that they did as well as they did, but we certainly appreciate the initiative that they took in this,” Rose said. “They make us look great, and we’re very, very proud of them and know we’re going to see great things from them in the future.”

Because of the success of the THS team, Murdock said she would welcome the opportunity to continue to take more students over to UTSI each year for the competition. Participating in a real-world simulation like that competition would help promote potential engineers and the careers they could have.

“I think we’d all like to advertise the experience as a good experience,” she said.

Erin McCullough may be reached at