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Second summer CHOICES camp draws 21 girls

Kurleigh Blum carefully dabs glue onto a miniature wooden bridge trellis she helped design. Then she aligns the trellis to other bridge parts that her teammates created. Another girl props the trellises up with books while the pieces are being secured. Finally, the miscellaneous wood strips become a bridge strong enough to support a model train.

Across the room, another team constructs a bridge out of pasta. A student shaves off a piece of protruding fettuccini. "Look at all the pasta dust," another girl says, pointing to a small pile of pasta shavings.

The girls are completing a week-long project for Lehigh's second annual summer CHOICES camp (Charting Horizons and Opportunities in Careers in Engineering and Science).

The camp, supported by the Society of Women Engineers and the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, drew 21 middle-school girls interested in exploring engineering.

Before the camp began on July 11, Kurleigh Blum knew only a little about engineering through her father, Rick Blum, who is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Lehigh.

"I thought engineering was complicated and hard to achieve," Blum says. After a week at the CHOICES camp, she said she was considering engineering as a career possibility.

Shikhi Saxena, a rising ninth grader, may not pursue engineering, but said she gained a deeper appreciation for it. "I learned how engineers think and solve problems," she said.

The girls worked on two week-long projects at the camp. In one project, teams of five or six girls designed and built a model bridge using one of four materials: paper, wood, plastic and fettuccini noodles. Each team member contributed a specific task to the project.

The girls learned about 15 basic bridge designs. They developed computer simulations of different models and explored the best designs. After deciding which model best suited their materials, they created blueprints and assembled their bridges.

The second week-long project was less structured. The girls divided into four teams that proposed plans to restore an abandoned railroad corridor, like the one in South Bethlehem, into something that will contribute to the community.

The girls visited South Bethlehem's rail corridor, discussed ideas, and surveyed members of the community. They built a scale model replacement for the corridor and presented proposals to an audience of professors, mentors and parents.

The girls also toured five of Lehigh's seven engineering departments as well as the ATLSS (Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems) Research Center.

One of the girls' favorite activities on the tour was making a vegetable battery powerful enough to light up a light bulb. Helen Chan, professor of materials science and engineering, created these batteries by pumping electrodes through apples, oranges, grapefruit and bananas.

In the chemical engineering lab, the girls made two types of "funny putty," a substance similar to silly putty. They evaluated two formulas, one made with equal parts of glue and water and another made with more glue than water. The putty created from equal parts of glue and water was the stronger of the two.

The camp aims to show girls that they can succeed in engineering and other technical and scientific fields. Only 20 percent of U.S. engineering graduate students are female, according to a 2004 study by the National Science Foundation.

All the graduate and undergraduate engineering students helping out at the CHOICES camp, and most of the professors, were women.

"We want to tell girls that, engineering can be in their future," said David Sudol, camp coordinator and principal research scientist at Lehigh's Emulsion Polymers Institute. "We want to encourage them to pursue engineering as early as possible."

Amie Humphrey, '04, a civil engineer graduate student, supervised construction of the plastic bridge. Her grandfathers, who are both engineers, and her father, who works with engineers, inspired her to major in civil engineering. She hopes that the girls gain an "understanding for how things are built and what engineers do."

"It's a chance for girls to see women in engineering," Humphrey says, "and to see engineering as a good degree if not a career."

by Becky Straw '06

Posted on Monday, August 01, 2005

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