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Engineering a Future

Workshop encourages girls to envision careers in engineering

The UC San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers demonstrated some culinary magic at the organizational fair, combining dry ice with cream and sugar to make homemade ice cream. Photos by Erika Johnson, cover photo by Renn Darawali

Equipped with circuit wires, small motors, batteries and cardboard boxes, more than 150 high school girls constructed, decorated and launched miniature robots during a workshop designed to show them the fun side of engineering. Hosted by the UC San Diego Society for Women Engineers (SWE), the Jan. 26 Envision event presented a chance for young women—especially those from underrepresented schools—to experience the multitude of pathways available in the field of engineering.

Envision workshop leaders led groups of students through several Jacobs School of Engineering laboratories, where the girls learned about current research projects and the exciting possibilities of working with high-tech tools.

Students attended lectures by leading female engineers, explored campus laboratories, interacted with undergraduate engineering organizations and learned how rewarding it can be to see their creations come to life. The students’ enthusiasm was palpable as the girls discovered how to make ice cream with dry ice—a lesson in the wide applicability of engineering.

“We want to encourage female students to excel and not let anything get in the way of their dreams,” said Rachel Meza, SWE outreach coordinator and third-year biochemistry/biology student. “Sometimes girls don’t get the support they need and may feel intimidated when they see a class full of men, so we provide opportunities to connect with female peers.”

Team leaders also led groups to several labs at the Jacobs School of Engineering, where the students gained a firsthand look at groundbreaking innovations developed on campus. At the Plasma Surface Interactions Research Laboratory, students explored the ways in which scientists harness and study energy. “Listening to the instructor at the lab really expanded my mind,” said Gabriella Lipson, a sophomore at Canyon Crest Academy. “This event is really inspiring, especially learning about how to pursue your interests and market yourself.”

Throughout the day, the girls were encouraged to think outside the box. During the opening presentation, Cheryl Bartel, an engineer at Life Technologies in San Diego, described how the root of her passion comes from knowing that she is improving lives, and that she is motivated each morning by a higher sense of purpose. Bartel reminded students that they can fashion their own careers to suit their interests, citing the story of chemical engineer Anyi Lu, who started out as a chemical engineer and used her knowledge to create a thriving couture shoe design company.

Parents and educators were invited to attend a lecture explaining ways to increase the enrollment of young women in college engineering programs and contribute to their vision of success in engineering and math careers. Debra Kimberling, an engineer at Solar Turbines in San Diego, has been promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers for women for more than three decades. She presented research regarding the unconscious—and inaccurate—bias that men have an innate ability for math while women are naturally programmed for liberal arts, and how to overcome that belief through positive reinforcement.

More than 150 students engineered their own personal “Tweenbot,”—a simple battery-powered cardboard robot that scuttled across the floor on one wheel.

“We need to change the story,” said Kimberling. “We need to build awareness of these implicit stereotypes, strengthen associations of women excelling in math and science and emphasize the way that engineers improve peoples’ lives.”

Kimberling’s research is based on a study conducted by the American Association of University Women entitled, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”.  Although young girls entering college are as equally prepared as men to begin a major in science and engineering, many do not follow through. According to Kimberling, it is important to prevent this fallout by emphasizing a “growth mindset”: that skills and success are developed through effort, and that with perseverance anything can be achieved.

In order to provide this foundation of confidence, the Society for Women Engineers—a student organization at UC San Diego and branch of the national society—connects young women with peers and provides opportunities for networking and professional development. SWE collaborates with the IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Excellence and Advancement) Center at the Jacobs School of Engineering to increase interest, enrollment and retention among women and other historically underrepresented groups.

“We want to show girls that they can be a part of this field,” said Meza. “Women need to be recognized as equally skilled in math and science and have faith and support in their ability to succeed.”