SWE Introduces Engineering to High School Girls

 Have you ever learned about engineering while in high school?

October 1, 2004

Like many of her peers, the answer for Bryn Hollen, a senior from Mars High School, was "no." But that would soon change, thanks to this fall's Society of Women Engineers (SWE) annual High School Day on campus. More than 300 ninth through twelfth grade girls, teachers, guidance counselors, and parents from approximately 30 high schools in Western and Central Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio came to learn the basics of engineering and left with new role models: successful women engineering students at Carnegie Mellon.

"It is a fantastic experience—not only to see the school—but also to learn about the different types of engineering and their applications," said Hollen, who found out about the event through her guidance counselor.

As veteran chairs from last year's program, Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) seniors Lisa Gentry and Yun Zhou organized the project, which led participants through hands-on laboratory exercises taught by faculty and SWE members. Christal Banks and Hilda Diamond from Biomedical Engineering (BME) provided advising and administrative support. The high school workshop has been held for fifteen years; this session Honeywell and Boeing were the sponsors.

"I help with this program because it's very difficult in high school to get an idea of what engineering really is," Gentry reflected. "Part of the problem could be since people don't take engineering courses the same way that they take science, or English, or even computer science in high school, it often gets overlooked."

Martha Dunagin, who attended with her daughter, Eleanor, a sophomore at Franklin High School in Franklin, PA, was glad the field trip exposed Eleanor and her classmates to technical opportunities: "They encourage girls in science and math, which is good even if they don't go into the field," she offered.

Gentry wasn't sure of the differences between engineering disciplines when she was first deciding upon a college major; knowing that she was not alone, she hopes the workshop will open student's eyes to opportunities they might not have considered.

ECE Lecturer Tom Sullivan instructed lessons on circuit design, teaching the girls to build their own small flasher circuits using the same type of kit from 18-100, Introduction to ECE. Since most of the pupils had not soldered before, Sullivan reviewed the process before the eager crew began.

"It's like welding for microelectronics," he explained, as he described fusing two pieces of copper together.

Aiding Sullivan, ECE senior Nicole Saulnier and Mechanical Engineering sophomore Katie Strausser showed the girls how to measure high and low voltage, capacitance and resistance. Each circuit had a printed circuit board, resistors, adjustable light emitting diodes (LED) lights, a capacitor, invertors, a battery and wires connecting the components.

When the lab was almost over, Hollen discussed the skills she used: "The activity challenges you to think and problem-solve," she summarized, adding that she may consider pursuing ECE.

Besides the sessions in ECE, students participated in up labs and seminars in topics ranging from biomedical, chemical, civil and environmental, materials science, and mechanical engineering, as well as engineering and public policy. In addition, a panel of Carnegie Mellon students answered questions about college life, SWE, and engineering.

Gentry enjoys volunteering with SWE: "SWE does so many various activities, from running service projects like this workshop, to running professional development seminars for its members, to going out and exploring other branches of engineering, to just getting together and having fun," she said. Other SWE outreach initiatives include a career guidance workshop for girls in Pittsburgh's public schools, a technical opportunities conference and a technical internship expo.

View the photo gallery.

High school girls learning the basics of engineering here at Carnegie Mellon.

High school girls working in the ECE Lab at Hamerschlag Hall.

ECE Lecturer Tom Sullivan instructing the girls on circuit design.