Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day

This last Saturday I volunteered at Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, put on by the University of Texas at Austin’s Women in Engineering Program:

There were 2,500+ girls in 1st-8th grade wandering around the engineering block of UT’s campus, exploring different activities facilitated by north of 700 volunteers. I can only speak to my own experience (I didn’t get to see every activity), but I think it was a really fun and worthwhile experience.

In our room, we had the “Don’t Sink the Titanic” activity. Basically this consisted of giving the girls 1 square foot of aluminum foil, 1 foot of masking tape, a couple rubber bands, two straws and 6 popsicle sticks… using that hodge-podge of materials, they construct the best and strongest boat they can, and compete to see whose boat can hold the most golf balls without sinking.

Trying to hold as many golf balls as possible!
Trying to hold as many golf balls as possible!

The record was 46!

To put that in perspective… the most one of the volunteers was able to get was 33. These girls were pretty amazing.

Getting girls and young women excited about the so-called STEM areas of study (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math for the uninitiated), has long been a concern for education and science policy. It’s events like this that can try to help reduce the gender-gap in these areas by getting girls excited about building things and creatively solving problems.

But we still have a long way to go. Events like this one can plant the seed, but it will take a sustained effort by parents and educators at all levels to help that seed flourish and bear fruit.

I work in a research group of about 17 people. Two of them are women. That’s a ratio that needs to change. The good news is that it is (slowly) changing. And with a vigilant and sustained effort, we can get more girls excited about science.

So, go ahead: introduce a girl to engineering, introduce a girl to physics, introduce a girl to biology, introduce a girl to robotics, zoology, climate science, Python and astronomy. We need them, and it’s up to all of us.

Teaching About Batteries at the Ann Richards School

This isn’t the first time those of us working with the Materials Interdisciplinary Research Team have met the impressive young women from the Ann Richards School (ARS). ARS, for those of you who don’t know, is a public charter school in the Austin Independent School District with 6th through 12th grade students (this year is their first class of seniors!). The school provides a robust engineering pathway for high school girls with a focus on helping them build a foundation to succeed in college, their careers and their communities.

Explaining how to characterize their synthesized material using x-ray diffraction to high school interns Celina Salazar, Evangelina Ruiz-Lujan and Blanca Sanchez.

Back in May, we hosted four ARS juniors for a one-week internship during which they were able to see how we conduct graduate-level research, and got to do a little research of their own! Over the course of that week they made their own batteries from scratch (using three types of cathode materials) and then tested them to determine the best uses for each type of cathode. And when I say from scratch… I mean scratch: they synthesized their own cathode materials from the raw chemicals!

Ok… enough about last May. Let’s get to this Monday. I couple of days ago I had the privilege of heading down to ARS to teach their Digital Electronics class (Yes: they have a Digital Electronics class. Yes: my jaw hit the floor, too.) about how the batteries they were plugging into their breadboard circuits worked.

I’m standing in the back in order to use their “doc-cam” to draw out my diagrams. No transparencies and visa-vis markers here folks… that’s way too 1997. Also: I’m old. Clearly.

I found that while putting together my lesson plan, my strategy of “keep it as simple as possible” worked really well. But it may not be for the reason you would think. That is, the strategy’s main point wasn’t to overly simplify the material for the sake of the students… it was to keep me from diverging onto too many tangents that missed the main point.

Believe me: there were certainly tangents and clarifications. But all of the side steps were prompted by really smart and thought-out questions by the students and their teacher Shireen Dadmehr. If I had allowed my own tangents to get in the way, I don’t think there would have been the space for the students to make those leaps of thought on their own. I like to think that’s where the real learning takes place: in being able to draw the connections yourself.

Nerd Alert.

I had a great time interacting with these bright young women, and hope to see some of them again during our internship program next Spring. Many thanks to Christy Aletky, our Outreach Coordinator, and Shireen Dadmehr for making this opportunity possible!

(Cross-posted at the MIRT website)