Engineering their futures

Hopkins program encourages young girls to enter a traditionally male-dominated field

December 02, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun Reporter

In a cramped engineering classroom at the Johns Hopkins University yesterday morning, 40 students set out to solve problems.

A firetruck had to be able to navigate through a forest. A school bus needed to traverse rural areas. A stadium had to be able to withstand a tropical climate.

Upperclassmen engineering majors might have struggled to find solutions, but these students, none of whom was older than 14, found answers in about three hours.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's editions about a program sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University for middle school girls misstated the school attended by Monika Borkovic. She attends Dumbarton Middle School in Baltimore County.

"That's the purpose of engineering, to improve people's lives," said Asya Shaw, 11, a seventh-grader at Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School.

For the third straight year, students and faculty members at Hopkins hosted middle-school girls -- primarily from Baltimore City -- in an effort to introduce them to a field dominated by males.

Women account for about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees, according to the most recent statistics compiled by Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics.

Lester K. Su, a professor of mechanical engineering at Hopkins, said "Ready Set Design!" organizers picked projects they thought the girls could relate to.

Middle-school girls were selected because they generally have enough experience in math and science but have not yet been encouraged to pursue other fields, according to Su.

"The projects we pick have to do with social and environmental impact," Su said.

The girls were placed into groups of four, where they worked with a female undergraduate majoring in engineering.

Asya's foursome was charged with building a firetruck for forest fires.

Group leader Jill Emerson, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering, asked the girls to brainstorm solutions. She was hit with a dozen suggestions, including thicker tires, louder sirens to scare stray animals and the capacity to carry additional water tanks to make up for the lack of hydrants in the forest.

The suggestions were written in red marker on a sheet of paper, which was used as a guide to design the truck. All of the girls' ideas left Emerson sounding like a proud mother.

"It's an opportunity to get students involved in something they may have never thought of," Emerson said. "I love engineering, and I love seeing these girls so interested."

One table over, Sarah Pulicare, a freshman engineering student, helped her group design a bus that could withstand muddy, partially flooded roads.

The girls created a school bus with tires so large they nearly took up half the length of the vehicle.

The original design of the bus, however, lacked one key element.

"We don't have any windows," said 11-year-old Monika Borkovic, a student at Dunbar Middle School. "We really need those."

Added 11-year-old Kyrie Calmers, "Otherwise, you can't breathe."

"That's why this is called a rough draft," Kyrie added.

Meanwhile, the girls at sixth-grader Alexis Green's table were in the midst of building an open-air soccer field that needs to be covered quickly when rain falls.

Alexis, 12, suggested placing a tarp at the top of the bleachers that could stretch the length of the field in a matter of minutes.

She took the lead in her group and seemed to be a natural at problem-solving, but she said she's not sure she will pursue engineering.

"I might, but I'm not sure because I also like basketball," Alexis said. "But this could be a Plan B. Math is one of my favorite subjects."

Organizers say that they have at least one seminar for the girls each semester and that hundreds of local students have come through the program since its inception in the spring of 2005.

Once the groups are done with their designs, male students run a machine shop in the back of the room where they take orders from girls to build the prototypes.

The final projects are not judged.

"It's more fun that way," Su said. "We're trying to emphasize engineering is about creativity, helping people and the environment."

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