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Chocolate and gumdrops help bridge gender gap in engineering

Students test the bridges they've contstructed from linguini and gum drops.

They built bridges out of gumdrops and linguini, made asphalt from chocolate and oats, and fashioned devices from orange juice cartons, Styrofoam peanuts, and balloons to protect eggs from a 30-foot fall. In so doing, 60 middle school girls learned crucial information about engineering: it’s not just about math problems, it’s not nerdy, and it’s definitely not just for boys.

To narrow the gender gap in engineering, the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and the Society of Women Engineers hosted CHOICES (Charting Horizons and Opportunities in Careers in Engineering and Science) here in March, to give a taste of the field to girls from six area middle schools.

“Middle school is the critical time to interest young students in engineering so they can properly plan for their high school curriculum,” said Mohamed El-Aasser, RCEAS dean.

“You are here to learn a little about what engineers do, and they do a lot,” El-Aasser told the group at the start of their day yesterday. “Engineering is about television, films, music, Ipods – improving these things and making them more affordable.”

Women can become engineers

Middle schoolers work with a Lehigh student to build an egg-protection device.

Only 10 percent of America’s working engineers are women. Nationwide, and at Lehigh, women make up about 20 percent of college engineering students.

The CHOICES program was first held at Lehigh in 1992 through 1996, it was restarted again in 1998 and 1999, and was reinstated yet again last year after the mother of a 1998 participant called El-Aasser, praised the program and asked that it be brought back. The woman said her daughter had decided to major in engineering because the experiments she conducted at CHOICES made a positive impression on her. El-Aasser listened, and CHOICES kicked off again in 2003.

Further proof that CHOICES speaks to young students is Carly Newhardt, a freshman who decided to come to Lehigh in part because of her day at CHOICES in 1998. “Although I don’t remember everything I did that day, I remember I had a great time,” said Newhardt. “It’s very important that girls this age see what’s available to them in terms of a career and realize that women can become engineers.”

Alix Echelmeyer ‘04, president of the Society of Women Engineers and a materials science and engineering major, was inspired to pursue engineering by a program similar to CHOICES in which she took part in high school.

“A few engineering students from Pitt came to our school,” said Echelmeyer. “We had to build a bridge like the one the students built today. That showed me the problem-solving aspect of engineering as opposed to the sitting-in-class and number-crunching vision I had of it before.”

Engineers improve people’s lives

A table full of the bridges the students built.

Rosemary Berger, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, who took part in the day’s events, said the goal of the program was twofold.

“We want to introduce middle school students to engineering, and we also want them to see students not much older than them engaged in engineering – sort of a first level of mentoring.”

Berger also pointed out the range of careers possibilities that a degree in engineering affords to majors.

“One Lehigh student had an internship at Disney where she studied how to make patrons’ wait in line more interesting so they don’t even realize they’re waiting. Engineers can work on the pit team for NASCAR, and biomedical engineers make implants for people to improve their lives,” she said.

At the start of the program, the girls were somewhat meek and shy as they mingled with students from other schools. By the day’s finale – the egg-drop competition where the girls watched the egg-protection devices they’d built fall 30 feet from Iacocca Hall’s balcony – they were screaming, cheering, and hugging their teammates and Lehigh student mentors. A few girls even exchanged phone numbers.

By bringing the girls to Lehigh and showing them what it’s like to be a college student in engineering, the organizers of CHOICES at Lehigh hope to inspire the students not only to go on in school, but also to pursue engineering.

“In a few years time, these Lehigh students you see will be out there inventing and doing new things,” El-Aasser told the middle school students. “Some day, maybe you will too.”

--Elizabeth Shimer

Posted on Thursday, April 08, 2004

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