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Girls discover CHOICES for careers in engineering

Students test the power of their "food batteries" to illuminate an LED light.

Engineering is cool. Think Ipods, TVs, and cell phones. And it’s not just for guys any more.

That was the message delivered to young female students from four local schools by S. David Wu, dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science (RCEAS). The girls came to the Mountaintop Campus recently for a day-long outreach program called CHOICES (Charting Horizons and Opportunities in Careers in Engineering and Science), which engaged them with hands-on engineering projects such as building bridges from gum drops and pasta and creating funny putty from borax and glue.

“Why should boys have all the fun?” Wu asked the girls during his opening remarks. “Sometimes engineers are associated with being nerdy, brainy or weird. Brainy? Maybe. But not nerdy or weird. There are a lot of cool, well-adjusted girls who become engineers.”

The growing ranks of women engineers

Using Elmer's glue and borax, the girls make a gooey substance called "funny putty."

The Feb. 24 event, which was cut short in terms of numbers of students and time by inclement weather, was co-sponsored by the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and the Lehigh chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE)

“The greatest value of CHOICES is for young girls to work side-by-side with talented women faculty and students in engineering and learn to appreciate engineering as a human endeavor, rather than some abstract concepts in a book,” Wu said.

Today more women than ever are choosing to major in engineering in college—one in five engineering majors in the U.S. today is female compared to just 2 percent in 1975. But overall, women still make up only 12 percent of the engineering workforce.

Rosemary Berger, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, says that SWE and RCEAS are doing their part to make sure that number rises.

Lehigh has hosted the one-day CHOICES event four times since 1998. Last year, the engineering college hosted the first annual one-week CHOICES summer camp.

“The Society of Women Engineers was excited by the opportunity to once again share their interest and enthusiasm for engineering with younger female students,” said Berger, who is also faculty advisor for Lehigh’s chapter of SWE.

Making girls aware of their options

Before the experiments, the girls broke the ice with activities such as "the human knot."

The day’s events called for ice breakers and experiments making funny putty from borax and glue, building batteries from fruits and vegetables to power a LED light, and designing a device to protect an uncooked egg from a 30-foot drop.

The arrival of snow only allowed the girls to participate in the ice breakers and one of the three experiments. But organizers hope that was enough to spark an interest in engineering or at least provide them with more knowledge about the field so they consider it a few years down the road.

“So many teenagers have never heard of engineering,” said Allison Cook ’07, a bioengineering major. “When girls enter the stage of their lives when they begin to think about if they want to go to college and what major they want to have, it is very important for them to be aware of their options. CHOICES reaches out to girls to make them aware of their opportunities and for those already familiar with engineering, CHOICES shows them that females, as well as men, can be very successful as engineers.”

Some of the girls in the room had already demonstrated an interest in science and engineering, which is why they were chosen to attend CHOICES.

“Our teacher picked the girls with the highest grades in science, said Joanna Mintzer, a student at Notre Dame of Bethlehem School. “I want to get a degree in medicine, and maybe get some kind of biology-related science degree before that.”

“We had to write an essay describing why we wanted to come today,” said Kavita Jain-Cocks, a student from Moravian Academy.

And it was evident that every young female student in the room wanted to be side-by-side with the Lehigh engineering students, making things and opening up their minds to future career possibilities. When the middle school girls were told they had to board the bus to head back to their schools early, their disappointment was clear.

Maureen Wink ’05, president of SWE, said that even if some of the girls don’t choose to pursue engineering, the CHOICES program makes a difference.

“They'll know what engineers are and what they do and that engineering is an option that’s open to them,” Wink said. “And that will make this program a success.”

--Elizabeth Shimer

Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005

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