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Women engineers reach out to young girls

Tuesday, March 4, 2008 | 4:48 p.m. CST; updated 4:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Madison Null, 9, of Columbia, and her mother, Kim, listen to a presentation designed to spur young girls' interests in engineering at the Columbia Public Schools Center for Gifted Education.

COLUMBIA — “I’ve got an idea!”

Girls shouted while standing on chairs to reach the tops of towers they constructed from tape and newspapers, each of several teams trying to come up with a new way to build the towers higher.

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About 30 girls in second through fifth grades attended a “Women in Engineering” presentation given by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering students several weeks ago. It was part of a Women’s Initiative program begun in 1998 when Microsoft asked the MIT chapter of Eta Kappa Nu, an electric and computer engineering honor society, to address the low number of women in electrical engineering and computer science fields. There are other programs, as well, trying to plant an interest in engineering in girls.

Melody Morris, a biological engineering graduate student at MIT, said many girls lose interest in math and science at a young age.

“Our purpose is to introduce girls to engineering because around middle-school age, girls usually lose interest in math and science,” Morris said. “We want them to know there’s a purpose for their interest, and that they can turn that interest into a job.”

Morris and Janice Mathew, an undergraduate engineering student at MIT, let the girls know there are more men in engineering, but women are still needed.

Sidney McMillan, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Moreau Heights Elementary School in Jefferson City, got the message. “I learned that engineers can be boys and girls, and if you enjoy math and science, you can be one,” Sidney said.

Morris said 48 percent of engineering students at MIT are women — which is a big difference from MU and national statistics. Kristin Ehlers, former president of the Society of Women Engineers at MU, said women make up about 10 percent of engineering students at MU. Nationally, the average is 20 to 25 percent, Ehlers said.

Such gaps have prompted the Society of Women Engineers to develop programs that reach out to young girls. The organization hosts a Girl Scout Day once a year, which has girls participate in activities such as building parachutes. Last year, about 100 young women attended the event and earned a badge in the process.

The engineering society also has a program for middle school students in fifth and sixth grades, which focuses on collaborating in teams and includes activities such as making roller coasters out of straws and building towers. This program has traveled around mid-Missouri to Harrisburg, Hallsville, Boonville and Centralia. The organization also travels to high schools to speak to students and recruit them into engineering.

Ehlers said studies show children find out their interests at a very young age, which is why the Society of Women Engineers finds importance in targeting these young girls.

“Studies show that at the end of grade school kids pick a direction of subjects they like and start to form ideas of what they’re interested in,” Ehlers said. “We’re trying to plant the idea early so they are aware that it is out there, and hopefully we’re sparking their interest in math and science and letting them know it could be boring now, but there is a relevance for knowing it.”

Even though there is not one solution to get students, in general, interested in engineering, Meera Chandrasekhar, professor of physics at MU, said she thinks programs that expose students as young as elementary-school age to the concepts of engineering could help. Another solution could be allowing students to be mentored by practicing engineers. However, she mentioned the difficulty in finding one solution that applies to every student.

“There is no magic bullet to solve this problem,” Chandrasekhar said. “A lot depends on what the individual thinks, their background and their comfort level.”

She also stressed the economic importance of increasing interest in science and engineering fields.

“This is a big area of need because many people in science and engineering end up being employed in lots of different areas,” Chandrasekhar said. “They are broadly trained and can be absorbed into many different industries. The market really needs them.”


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