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Engineering: A team endeavor

More than 60 middle-school girls filled Wood Dining Hall with laughter and excitement last week during a day of fun-filled experiments in engineering and science. Their enthusiasm and resourcefulness gave insight into the scientific capabilities of the future generation and a new era of women engineers.

The girls’ visit to Lehigh on April 11 was part of CHOICES (Charting Horizons and Opportunities in Careers in Engineering and Science). The annual one-day program, sponsored by the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and the Lehigh chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), encourages girls to prepare for engineering as a possible career by enrolling in math and science courses in high school.

Sarah Mastroianni ’08, a chemical engineering major and president of SWE, says programs like CHOICES are important because of the low numbers of women engineers. Women make up 18 percent of the nation’s undergraduate engineering majors and 21 percent at Lehigh.

“Girls are interested in math and science in elementary school, but in middle school, they start turning away,” says Mastroianni. “We created CHOICES to encourage girls to prepare in high school to pursue a career in engineering.”

“I think it is hard for girls to get an idea of what they would in engineering,” said Chrissie Rapp ’08, a mechanical engineering major and treasurer of SWE. “We want to create awareness that girls can do it too.”

The day began with icebreakers in which the girls did exercises using hula hoops and colorful balloons while sharing their interests in areas ranging from science and technology to acting, writing, and singing.

Exposing young women to engineering

The CHOICES program included three hands-on projects to demonstrate aspects of chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering. The girls, who came from Broughal, Nazareth, Saucon Valley and Whitehall middle schools and from the Swain School, then used their talents in science to solve the problems.

In the first experiment, SWE members described polymers and their everyday applications in credit cards, car parts and clothes fibers. The middle-school girls then made colored funny putty, creating a concoction from milk, latex paint, mayonnaise, and glue.

“You can be wrong,” said Kate Bazergui ’11, a SWE member assisting the students. “This is what scientists and engineers do.”

In the end, the girls conducted tests to see which substances gave the putty a more sturdy bounce or a longer stretch in order to understand the chemical properties of the materials they used.

In the second experiment, the girls designed burglar alarms using alligator clips, batteries, a light bulb, a buzzer, and aluminum foil. They learned the concept behind closed and open circuits and gained insight into series and parallel circuits. SWE members gave a demonstration, and the students worked in teams to design electrical circuits.

The program’s main experiment was an egg drop design competition in which the girls transformed simple household projects into a capsule to be thrown down one story of Iacocca Hall in hopes that the egg contained within the device would survive.

The judges, Sharon Kalafut, faculty adviser to SWE and professor of practice in the computer science and engineering department; Aurelie Thiele, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering; and Donna Mohr, director of graduate recruiting and program development for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, waited at the bottom for the eggs while the students cheered enthusiastically for their projects.

“We did well,” said Kalafut. “It is the first year we had 90 percent of teams’ eggs survive.”

Sarah Moessner, an eighth-grader at Howard Eyre Middle School, said the egg drop was her favorite part of the day.

Kelsey Miller, also an eighth-grader at Howard Eyre Middle School, said the project “gave us an opportunity to show off our creativity.”

“The most important thing it teaches is team work,” said Mastroianni. “Engineering is a lot about team work. You are never working alone.”

The students won prizes in various categories in the egg drop competition. The least expensive device cost $3, the lightest weighed 114.7g, and the most creative design included a newspaper parachute that facilitated the most graceful landing.

“[This program is] important to me because as a woman engineer, I want to see more women engineers,” said Mastroianni. “I want to see girls excited about engineering because I love it, and I want other people to as well. It’s not easy, but it’s doable. You must have the drive and ambition, and you will succeed. Don’t let the fact that it may be hard or that there are a lot of men in the field hold you back.”

--Gabriela Saade ’08


Posted on Saturday, April 19, 2008

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