When I was a 12-year-old girl, I loved baking cookies. It was fun. I would have a friend over on a Saturday afternoon; we would bake and then snack on the cookies. I didn’t know at the time, but I discovered recently, as a mom and engineer, that baking a cake has a lot of skills in common with basic engineering projects.
This past weekend my daughter had one of her friends over. They both love to bake and decorate cupcakes, so I expected they’d be in my kitchen creating something. I didn’t know they were going to engineer such an unusual product – a swimming pigs cake!
Here are some of the engineering skills the two girls used over the course of the afternoon.
Having a vision – the big idea
An essential first step to any engineering project is to have a big idea and then to define the requirements for your product. The girls saw a picture of the pig cake at the beginning of the summer and had been talking and texting about it for weeks. They agreed that they would build their own swimming pigs cake, modeling theirs from the photo.
Research and Planning
A key part of planning is identifying what you know and what you don’t. Baking and frosting skills – they had, but sculpting the pigs was new to them. They did some research on fondant products and found one that was sold in a small amount, like a chunk of clay. This would work to build their pigs.
Then there was the time constraint – my kitchen had to be cleaned before our dinner guests arrived that evening. They had to figure out how to bake, cool the cakes, frost, build the pigs and decorate them in the few hours they had. They decided to build the pigs while the cakes baked and cooled.
Budgeting requires you to estimate your costs against how much money you have to spend. I told them I would pay for the cake, frosting and Kit-Kats, but I was concerned that the fondant would be expensive and too difficult to work with. Really, I wanted to see just how passionate they were about the project, so I asked my daughter, “Will you buy the fondant with your allowance?” When she said yes, willing to part with $5, I knew they were really into it.
Earlier that week each girl made a list of ingredients and compared lists over texting to make sure they identified everything they would need. They had even checked online and found two stores where we could buy the special fondant (in pink).
The fun part of most engineering projects is building your product. They were competent and fast at making the cake. While the cake was baking, they read the fondant instructions. It said you had to knead the fondant. They didn’t know that technique, so they brought in an expert (my husband). He showed them how to knead the fondant to make it pliable, then they got to work.
While the cakes were cooling, they started shaping the fondant into pigs, using the picture as their model. Adding creative aesthetics is important to make your product appealing. Did I mention they made a lot of pigs from that pink fondant? Enough to make two single-layer cakes, instead of the double-layer cake in the original photo.
By the time the cakes cooled, they finished the pigs. They frosted the cakes, and were ready to add the Kit-Kat bars when they realized they had a problem. Problems always arise during engineering projects – you just have to solve them and move on. And that’s what they did. They cut the Kit-Kat bars in half and made a short “fence.”
Then it was time for final integration – putting the fondant pigs on the cakes and adding the finishing touches. And they finished the cakes and cleaned up my kitchen before the dinner guests arrived.
After dinner the girls served the cake. Our guests thought the cake was really cute and very clever. The girls received compliments on how delicious it was. Their cake added to our dinner party and they could feel it. They were proud of their accomplishment.
I think if we want to get girls interested in STEM education and technical careers, we need to identify opportunities, even modest ones like baking a cake, where they can build things and practice basic engineering skills. Don’t underestimate the power of girls being able to take on a lofty project and then see the impact of their work. Even if it is a group of people gobbling down a swimming pigs cake!