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New NASA collaboration highlights CHOICES camp

The chatter of 20 middle school girls on a lunch break echoes down the hall in Packard Laboratory. Such a sound is unusual for the almost eighty-year old building. In fact, the sound of girls is relatively uncommon for many engineering colleges across the U.S.—a problem that Lehigh hopes to help rectify with its Charting Horizons and Opportunities in Careers in Engineering and Science camp.

Better known as CHOICES, the camp invites sixth through eighth grade girls to Lehigh’s campus to complete a series of projects intended to make science and engineering fun and accessible.

“Do we have to sit out here?” a girl whines about the break. “Can’t we just go to our room and get to work?” It seems that the camp may be having its desired effect. Similar complaints are heard at snack time—“Can we bring it back with us? I don’t want to stop!”

Graduate and undergraduate women in engineering mentor the girls through the camp. A number of women from the engineering faculty lead projects and presentations about engineering as well. The purpose is to show the middle school students that engineering can be cool and fun—but most importantly, for women.

“I hope that we began to show them that the negative stereotypes associated with engineering are unfounded,” says rising junior in chemical engineering Victoria Katen-Narvell. “I know that the girls helped to remind me that even though I can get bogged down in the details of what I am doing, engineering is fun!”

The girls participate in a number of smaller projects during the week including making funny putty and testing what formula will make it stretch and bounce the most. They also create batteries from fruit, and build water filtration systems from household products.

Each day after the morning activity, the girls take part in the first of two week-long projects. They must design and build bridges from one of four materials: wood, pasta, plastic, or paper. After lunch the girls head off to work on their Rube Goldberg © machines—complex devices that perform simple tasks. The Rube Goldberg project provides girls with the opportunity to demonstrate their creativity, and thus is a favorite among the campers.

Though initially cautious about their new surroundings, the girls quickly make new friends and throw themselves into their projects. “As the week goes on you see skills and aptitudes emerge from the girls,” says Megan Casey, a graduate student and research assistant in chemical engineering. “For example, one girl realizes she is a natural leader, or another finds she totally gets how to connect electrical circuits, while yet another is converting decimals to fractions in her head for bridge building while you're trying to keep up with a calculator.”

The program started in the summer of 2004 due in part to the success of the day-long CHOICES camp held during the school year. The P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science partners with Lehigh’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers to host nearly sixty girls for one day each Spring. The girls perform abridged versions of some of the projects. The highlight of the one-day event is the creation of containers that will allow a raw egg to survive a two-story fall from the balcony of Iacocca Hall’s Wood Dining Room.

This year marks another milestone for CHOICES in the launching of a collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. GSFC operates a similar camp, known as SISTER (Summer Institute in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research).

Dr. Henry Odi, executive director of academic outreach at Lehigh, acts as the liaison between Lehigh and GFSC for this effort. “The education division at NASA has always wanted the collaboration between CHOICES and the SISTERS project,” he says. “It was their idea to join the two programs.”

As part of the launching of this partnership, the campers were each assigned a “buddy” from the other program. The girls were able to meet their buddies through video conferencing, and at the end of the week shared their completed projects by the same method.

The next big step is to give the girls time to interact in person. “The project is just beginning,” Odi asserts, “but we intend for it to move on and grow.” The outreach team hopes to bridge this gap as early as next summer. “For example, we could bus the girls there [to Goddard] for a day, and then let them bring their campers here the next year,” he suggests.

The partnership between the camps opens up new opportunities to the girls on campus and those down in Maryland. According to Odi, the point of these projects is to “attract, excite, [and] retain” students in math and science.

By working together to increase the options available to students, Lehigh and NASA have a better chance of doing just that.

—Christine Rapp

Posted on Monday, August 18, 2008

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