Engineering Alumna Rockets to Netflix Baking Competition

Renee Frohnert, MEng ’19, and her teammate raced against the clock to craft designs that were both tasty and structurally sound

Renee Frohnert, MEng ’19, is shown in a scene from the trailer for the new Netflix show "Baking Impossible." At left is the double-hulled, chocolate-tempered, cake-based boat that she and her teammate, Steve, created for the first challenge
Renee Frohnert on the new Netflix show “Baking Impossible.” At left is the chocolate-covered, cake-based boat that she and her teammate created for the first challenge. (Photo: Netflix/provided)

For her audition video for Netflix’s new baking-engineering competition show “Baking Impossible,” Renee Frohnert, MEng ’19, baked a batch of cupcakes and took a bite out of one, then attached it to a rocket, which she proceeded to launch nearly 400 feet into the air. The demonstration—which she introduced by first assembling the rocket—was meant to show her engineering acumen, creativity, and basic baking skills for what she excitedly announced as “space cakes!” 

While the cake-and-rocket combo didn’t quite leave Earth’s atmosphere (it likely landed on the roof of a nearby building, she says), the audition—and Frohnert’s passion for the assignment—did garner her a spot on the show, which premiered on the streaming service in early October. The eight-episode series pairs bakers and engineers in timed competitions that require their creations to meet both cooking, design, and engineering challenges.

Renee Frohnert, MEng ’19, and her teammate, Steve, a baker from Florida, are shown in a scene from the trailer for the new Netflix show "Baking Impossible."
Frohnert (right) and her teammate, a baker from Florida. (Photo: Netflix/provided)

Nine baker-engineer paired teams (dubbed “bakineers”)—who had never met before—had to quickly figure out how to work together and harness their separate skill sets, while keeping design, taste, innovation, and structural soundness in mind for each challenge.

(Only mild spoilers follow—all six episodes are available to Netflix subscribers, and you’ll have to watch for yourself to learn how Frohnert and her partner fared.)

“For me, the entire experience, especially coming from the engineering world, was really eye-opening,” says Frohnert, who was paired with Steve, a 62-year-old professional baker from Florida. “I didn’t realize how much engineering actually goes into baking.”

For the first challenge, the teams had nine hours to build a cake-based boat—at least two feet long with at least one sail, a 4.8-volt servo motor, and a rudder—that would have to navigate a 20-foot water course in less than 45 seconds in 7 knots of wind. Frohnert and Steve decided to use chocolate for the entire exterior of the boat due to its waterproof properties.

Ultimately, it also got me out of my comfort zone, which can be really important.

Renee Frohnert, MEng ’19

Frohnert says she and Steve both had to “really quickly jump in and learn from each other.” Steve gave her a crash course in how to temper chocolate, and she ended up tempering 50 pounds of it for their boat. In return, she taught him how to calculate buoyancy and water displacement. Their boat floated beautifully, a testament to its engineered structure (not everyone’s crafts stayed upright), although the water course itself posed additional hurdles.

For subsequent challenges, Frohnert had to design—and redesign—numerous engineered machines and elements for assignments like creating a wearable and edible fashion piece for a runway show; a playable miniature golf course made from dessert materials; and a baked cityscape featuring a five-foot-tall skyscraper that would be put to the test of withstanding a simulated earthquake on a shake table.

The show’s time constraints and other entertainment-focused parameters necessitated skipping a lot of what would typically be extensive design and testing phases for any engineer, going “straight to the build phase,” she explains—something very different from the typical rigorous process of systems engineering. “But ultimately, it also got me out of my comfort zone, which can be really important.”

Renee Frohnert, MEng ’19, pictured in cap and gown in Sage Chapel, was the invited student speaker for the 2019 College of Engineering graduation ceremonies for all MEng students
Frohnert was the invited student speaker for the College of Engineering’s Systems Engineering Program’s 2019 commencement ceremony, held in Sage Chapel. (Photo: E. Jacob Cornelius)

Frohnert showed a keen interest in engineering from an early age. At seven, she learned from her dad how to take a car transmission apart, clean it, and reassemble it, and she worked on cars in their garage throughout her childhood.

She got her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at Penn State and was hired at Lockheed Martin Space. She entered the company’s engineering leadership development program and headed to Silicon Valley, where she worked on electrical components for the Orion spacecraft as part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon to prepare for human exploration missions to Mars.

While continuing to work full time, she enrolled in Cornell’s systems engineering master’s program as a distance-learning student. In the meantime, Frohnert had found an additional interest—speaking to groups about aerospace and spacecraft, and about how women can thrive within traditionally male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. She has more than 15,000 followers on Instagram, many of them “women in STEM who are trying to navigate the field,” Frohnert says.

She discovered this calling at Penn State, where, as one of only three women out of about 200 students in the electrical engineering program, she joined the Society of Women Engineers. At Cornell, she was thrilled to find a far more equal gender balance.

Renee Frohnert, MEng ’19, along with the rest of her team, watch the robot they built in just one week as it embarks on a series of 11 challenges at the SYSEN 5920 competition on campus in 2017
Frohnert (right of center in blue Cornell sweatshirt), along with the rest of her team, watch the robot they built in just one week as it embarks on a series of 11 challenges at the SYSEN 5920 competition on campus in 2017. (Photo: Patrick Gillespie)

Cornell Engineering hit a much-publicized milestone right around that time: in fall 2018, women comprised half of the incoming undergraduate Class of 2022. It was the first engineering college of its size—and stature—to reach gender parity. “That was a huge stat—I was so proud,” Frohnert says.

Today, Frohnert works for L3Harris Space & Airborne Systems business development group in San Diego while pursuing an MBA at the University of Southern California, focusing on entrepreneurship and business leadership.

Frohnert says she would eventually like to start her own engineering or aerospace business, create some type of nonprofit to inspire and support women and other underrepresented communities in STEM, or even develop a kids’ TV show—no word yet on whether it will include a bakineering competition.

Published: October 19, 2021


Comments

  1. Timothy Muck, Class of 1992

    That is so exciting! It reminded of how me and friend carved SPAM for a Fat Tuesday celebration in Seattle. My mind is racing now! There is an annual boating competition in Seattle called SeaFair, and I am eager to make this a competition between electric powered boats.

    I was trained as a lawyer. As a kid, I designed and launched model rockets. Comments? I can be reached by writing to inothymuck1992@gmail.com

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