Pannell Scholar: Engineering fits girls to a ‘T’

| November 15, 2012

Guion 127 is a sensory riot. Colors melt into stark white T-shirts, a pattern repeated among rows of young girls, 20 or so, all chattering above a thumping boom box. Isopropyl alcohol fumes escape the open windows.

Kelsey Barta, a sophomore engineering major from Seattle, has invited the Lynchburg and Amherst middle schoolers here for an after-school “Engineering for Girls” event. The project is T-shirt chromatography, an introduction to chemical engineering. It is the first of three workshops Barta is running to get young girls excited about the field of engineering. The other two, focusing on electrical and mechanical engineering respectively, will take place in January and February.

Barta is funding her project through an Anne Gary Pannell Merit Scholarship. She is one of nine members of the Class of 2015 to qualify for the program, which was initiated in 2010-2011 to reward exceptional first-year students with the opportunity to fully explore an area of interest during their sophomore year. The Class of 2014 was the first to complete projects under the program.

Pannell Scholars receive a merit award applied to their tuition and funds to support their project. It can be used for research, creative endeavors, or travel for academic purposes or service.

On this Thursday evening in early November, those funds have purchased a rainbow of permanent markers, white T-shirts, household rubbing alcohol and an assortment of packaged snacks. The latter fly about as Sweet Briar student volunteers toss little bags of Cheese Nips to waiting hands across the crowded room.

Barta explains that chromatography is a process used to separate substances, for example blood or ink found at a crime scene or pollution in air or water.

The girls stretch the shirts over plastic cups and secure them with rubber bands. Using eyedroppers, they drip alcohol onto dot patterns they’ve drawn in the circles formed by the cups, which causes the colors to separate and spread. The more they drip, the more the colors run.

They get creative. A sixth-grader makes a peace sign. Another draws the face of Firestar, the sleek ginger cat in “Warriors.” She’s a big fan of the children’s book series and, by the looks of it, a budding artist. Maybe just the kind of inventive female mind Barta wants to see entering the engineering profession.

She recalls being one of only two girls who participated in her high school’s engineering pathways program. “I always thought, ‘I don’t know why there aren’t other girls in here, because the stuff that we do is fun,’ ” she says.

“So I figured middle school would probably be a good age to expose girls to engineering, because they can then discover what it is and that they can actually have a career in it. So maybe as they move on to high school and start thinking about what they want to do, they might think of engineering.”

It seems to be working so far. Many are there because they like science in school, others are simply curious. But when Barta starts to wrap up the two-hour session, there are cries of protestation.

“Is it over already?” one asks. “I’m not ready to go home.”

The objections are short-lived, thanks to the final planned activity of the afternoon.

“Who wants to see live sharks?” a professor calls out to shouts of “I do! I do!”

The eager group flows toward the lab, where the biology department’s chain catshark colony thrives in aquaria — though evidently not without some trepidation.

“They wouldn’t allow wild sharks at the college,” one is heard to say as they pass.

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Engineering Science, Serving an Expanded Student Body