Problem solvers apprenticeship

A Johns Hopkins-sponsored workshop sparks middle-school girls' interest in engineering

Baltimore & Region


Armed with paper, pens, felt and glue, the middle-school girls could have very well set out to create pictures or simple crafts. Instead, sitting in small groups, they brainstormed, they problem-solved, they engineered.

And they had a whole lot of fun.

That's the message women's engineering students at the Johns Hopkins University tried to sell to more than 100 girls who attended a university program yesterday to promote the male-dominated profession to females.

Participants were asked to develop solutions for disabled people - such as inventing shoes that a person without arms could put on or a sled that a person with a spinal cord deficiency could ride - and then construct a prototype.

Many of the girls didn't know what they were in for. They worried about facing three hours of lectures on engineering, on a Saturday morning, no less.

"I was sleepy," said Amber Harden, 13, who attends Loch Raven Academy.

"I was bored," interjected one of her classmates, Monique Barnes, 12.

But both emerged from the first session of the day energized about their experience.

"I learned when you ask questions, you think of so many answers," Monique said.

Organizers of the event have focused on middle-school pupils because they possess enough math and science knowledge and haven't yet been affected by the stereotypes associated with engineering, said Lester K. Su, a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins.

"It seems unfair that the [girls] get steered away from this field," said Su, adding that female engineers often bring a practical approach the profession lacks.

He pointed to Volvo's decision in 2004 to have eight female engineers design a concept car that stresses ease of use and comfort. The car allows for easier installation or detachment of a car seat. A hole in the headrest allows a ponytail to slide through.

Su and the Hopkins students developed real-world problems for participants to solve, trying to spur creativity by instilling a sense of relevance in their work. For example, girls in November were asked to develop plans for the rebuilding effort of hurricane-damaged New Orleans.

"We want them to learn about how engineers can affect everyday lives," Su said.

Organizers also invited two female engineers from Northrop Grumman Corp. to volunteer yesterday. Lisa Cox, an electrical engineer for 20 years, said the Hopkins program can help motivate girls to consider a science-based career.

"Some kids need a little push, to know that it's not impossible to pursue this field," said Cox, who develops machines that the U.S. Postal Service uses to process mail. "It's very real and possible."

The program, "Ready Set Design!" seems to be catching on.

Yesterday marked the third day that seminars were held at Hopkins, and the numbers have climbed each time. Su said that 30 attended in the spring; 58 attended in November and an estimated 127 showed up yesterday. More than a dozen Hopkins engineering students participated yesterday. The women oversaw each of the 12 group projects while the men ran a machine shop, where they took orders from girls to build pieces for the prototypes.

Kit Brennen, 12, who attends Garrison Forest School, said that she once had liked science but had started to grow indifferent in recent years.

After her experience yesterday, she said, "This makes me a lot more interested."

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