Lehigh University
Lehigh University


CHOICES: Inspiring new generations of female engineers

Walk into Iacocca Hall's Wood Dining Room on a regular weekday and you would probably find faculty, staff, and a handful of students eating lunch, or perhaps a meeting or conference session in progress.

But for one Friday each April, it's quite a different scene—one overtaken by Charting Horizons and Opportunities In Careers in Engineering and Science ( CHOICES), the program that brings sixth-through eighth-grade girls from across the local community to Lehigh for a day of fun engineering and science-related activities.

The girls, who show an aptitude for math and/or science, are selected to participate by their teachers. The annual event is a collaboration between the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and the Lehigh chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

Balloon towers, coming together at CHOICES.

After words of welcome from Dean David Wu and SWE president Whitney Levine '10, the girls divided into six teams and began the day with a few games and a balloon tower creation competition to help the girls, all from different regional middle schools, to get to know each other before launching into the day's projects.

"We arranged the groups so that no group contained two girls from the same school," says Melanie Roha '09, a computer science and business major. "You should have seen the looks on the girls' faces when they found out that they weren't in the same group as their friends. They looked like they wanted to cry!" The teams quickly warmed up through the construction of balloon towers, and the SWE team leaders then directed groups to their two morning assignments.

"I really wanted to be a team leader this year so that I could get to know the girls better," says Ksenia Pogossian '10, a civil engineering major. "Our task was to stay with our teams during the day to guide them through the different projects and encourage them to get involved and interact."

One of two morning activities teaches the basics of parallel and series circuits, conductors, and switches. The mission was to design a working "burglar alarm" that, when triggered by an aluminum switch, connects a power source to a buzzer and a light bulb. Once the girls mastered their small circuits, the SWE leaders challenged the teams to create one giant circuit around the whole table including the use of a switch.

"When a group of about seven girls finally got it to work, someone yelled, 'This is awesome!'" materials science and engineering major, Stephanie Bojarski '10, remembers. "I thought it was pretty awesome that they got so excited."

SWE member Carolyn Scott '10 builds a circuit with a visiting middle schooler.

Ice composites is a new project for the CHOICES program. "The funny putty project seemed to be covered in middle school science classes," says Bojarski, "so we decided that it was time for a new project."

Richard Vinci, a professor in the materials science and engineering department, suggested a smaller version of a large scale ice composite test that they do during MAT Camp over the summer. SWE members who redesigned the project for CHOICES had to run their own trials to create a fun project that would work in the time and space allotted.

SWE successfully ran Ice composites in an outreach program at St. Thomas More Elementary School before the girls presented it at CHOICES. Using pre-made ice composites containing wooden tongue compressors, plastic wrap, straws, or news paper, the middle school girls rated each type of block and then tested the composite's durability.

The middle schoolers were having a great time, and their interest in learning about the SWE members was palpable. "They wanted to know about my major and what civil engineers do," says Pogossian. "I told them that civil engineers work with structures and foundations and I explained how, in class, we figure out the strengths of various soils, and what kinds of structures those soils would be suitable for."

The group then moved on to the ice composites experiment where the presenters asked the girls why and how engineers use composites. Two girls from Pogossian's group raised their hands and gave examples of how civil engineers use composites to strengthen the ground in order to better support structures. "Seeing that the girls really understood what I said and used it to learn other concepts was my favorite part of the day," says Pogossian. "It made me feel like I had a real engineering related contribution to their experience at CHOICES."

"CHOICES shows the girls that engineering goes far beyond how the stereotypes portray it," says SWE president and computer science engineer, Whitney Levine '10. "They [the girls] can apply the things they enjoy doing every day to an incredibly successful future career." The program works to dispel the idea that science and math are "geeky" and reminds the girls that they can excel in these subjects.

"I really wish I had a program like CHOICES when I was younger," Bojarski says, "I did not even know what engineering was, yet alone realize the misrepresentation of females in the field. Programs like CHOICES allow girls to see that these careers exist and can be fun and exciting."

-Christine Rapp

Posted on Wednesday, April 08, 2009

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