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CHOICES: Promoting interest in science, math, and engineering among middle school girls

CHOICES 2010

As part of its annual effort to spark young girls interest in engineering, Lehigh’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) hosted its annual CHOICES event (Charting Horizons and Opportunities in Careers in Engineering and Science) for more than 60 middle school girls from 11 schools across the Lehigh Valley area.

Sharon Kalafut, faculty advisor of Lehigh’s SWE chapter and a professor of practice for computer science and engineering, stressed how SWE wanted to expose as many young girls as possible to the opportunities available in the engineering discipline.

Starting in the morning and ending mid-afternoon, the girls participated in a variety of fun activities that closely correlated with engineering. First, the girls were separated into teams of five and asked to build the tallest balloon tower using only masking tape and balloons. The winning tower ended up being 101 inches in height.

Next, the middle-schoolers moved on to either the burglar alarm project or a chocolate composite station. At the burglar alarm station, the girls learned about circuitry by creating their own small-scale burglar alarm out of alligator clips, batteries, a buzzer and aluminum foil. Here, the girls were given a small taste of what electrical engineers do in their jobs.

According to Whitney Levine ’10, president of Lehigh’s SWE for the past two years, one of the goals of the CHOICES event was to broaden the girls’ perspectives on engineers and what they do.

"Engineering has had a reputation for being just about train conducting and bridge building, but it’s so much more than that," she says. "And it is important to foster an interest in math and science. We’re here to let these girls know that math and science is a field where they can succeed."

At the chocolate composite station, the teams learned the meaning of composite materials and how composites increase the material strength. The SWE members used straw and mud as an example of two materials that were incapable of building a sturdy structure apart, but together straw and mud created brick, a composite that has much more strength and endurance.

The girls were then given different types of candy -- gummy worms, Whoppers, and fruit roll ups -- and asked to rank which candies would act as the better reinforcers for the chocolate. The chocolate was melted, combined with the reinforcer, and tested using a slammer. Interestingly, more than half of the girls in the one group predicted correctly that the gummy worms would be the best reinforcements for the chocolate.

At lunchtime, a Lehigh Alumna with a degree in chemical engineering and a current SWE Lehigh Valley chapter member, Heather Grieco put on a show as part of the Air Products Liquid Nitrogen (LIN) Ambassador Program. The demonstration highlighted how using liquid nitrogen to freeze objects can easily change the object’s properties.

For example, Grieco placed a blue bouncy ball in liquid nitrogen for a minute. She removed the ball, threw it against the wall and smiled as the audience watched it shatter.

Also, in front of the audience, the LIN ambassadors made cookies-n-cream and strawberry ice cream in a matter of minutes using liquid nitrogen as the cooling ingredient.

When asked about the purpose of the LIN ambassador program Grieco said, "We wanted to show them engineering is fun and not your stereotypical sitting behind the desk job. Engineering has ways to impact the environment and the world."

After eating the lunchtime dessert prepared from liquid nitrogen, the girls finished the day with their egg drop design competition. In this project, ten teams had to build a vehicle that would provide a safe landing for an egg dropped 30 feet above the ground.

Ms. Alyssa Mierta, an eighth grade earth and space science teacher from South Mountain Middle School, had brought four girls with her to the event. Mierta, a graduate from Lafayette College with a degree in civil engineering, was excited to be encouraging the next generation of engineers.

"For our students, it was a great opportunity to get involved, to meet girls from other schools, to check out what a college atmosphere is like, and to see older girls succeeding and following their dreams," said Mierta.

Story by Megan Stoner

Posted on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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