The Washington Times-Herald

April 25, 2013

Norris breaks engineering stereotypes

Lindsay Owens
Washington Times Herald

WASHINGTON — So how did a young woman from Washington become so interested in a field that is dominated by men? 

Kendra Norris grew up in the country and participated in 4-H for 10 years where she showed horses, cattle and pigs. She was involved in basketball, cross country, track and field and various clubs at Washington High School before she graduated in 2008. While at Vincennes University, she earned an associate’s degree in science with an electrical engineering concentration. Next, she went off to the University of Evansville where she will graduate May 4 with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.

  “My mother works at the Farm Service Agency in Washington and my dad works at RTC Communications in Montgomery. While I was growing up, I always had Mom there supporting me and showing me the pros and cons to each side of every situation. Dad on the other hand was more of the push I needed to get where I am today,” said Norris. “He was always pointing out what specific parts were on electronic gadgets. I know he was doing this because he lives and breathes that kind of thing but deep down I think he wanted me to be as interested in the things he was.” 

It was Norris’ sophomore year at VU when she decided she wanted to pursue the electrical engineering road.

“I was unsure of the decision at the time but mom was there to help me make the best decision for me while dad sat back and grinned seeing me follow somewhat in his footsteps.” 

Norris was part of the first all-girls engineering team at Evansville. She and her partner for the project, Ariel Cockerham, competed earlier this month at the Trinity College Fire Fighting Home Robot competition in Hartford, Conn. The two were also the only all-girl team in the competition. 

“Our design project was a complete success,” Norris said. “Our robot located a candle in variable locations as well as returned to the home starting position after the flame was extinguished.”

Both girls had hopes of placing in the top five of all the robots in the senior division but there were some unexpected difficulties when it came to the competition course. The course consisted of an eight foot square maze which had walls and rooms laid out like a house floorplan. In one room, there was a candle the robot must find and extinguish before returning to the entrance. The robot must not touch any walls and must avoid a small, stuffed dog that may be located anywhere in the maze. Norris said she was unsure of the malfunctions of robot in the actual competition.

Because the duo competed in the senior division of the competition, the two had to build their robot from an original design rather than a kit. Norris said she and Cockerham bounced ideas off of each other while designing the robot. 

“The robot itself is quite complex,” said Dick Blandford, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of Evansville. “It is driven by two small stepper motors, numerous infrared sensors to detect walls and obstacles, a UV flame sensor to find the candle, and a motorized spray nozzle that can locate a flame with the infrared sensors. The nozzle will point directly at the candle, and spray it with a blast of carbon dioxide.”

“We understand the robot was made for the competition,” said Norris. “However, in reality, it could be used as a prototype in a real world setting. This type of firefighting robot would be extremely useful in controlling small household fires until authorities are able to arrive on the scene. This could ultimately aid in saving lives.” 

Norris currently works as an electronics engineer at NSWC Crane Naval Base through a co-op but hopes to become a full-time Crane employee soon. “With all the government stuff going on it may take a while to get converted over to a full-time employee but that’s the plan.”