Engineering Sounds Great to Local Middle School Girls

| February 24, 2012
Jascira Cabanas, 12, assembles her speaker kit.

Twenty-five sixth-grade girls from Nelson Middle School in Lovingston came to Sweet Briar yesterday for the first Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. The event was organized by Hank Yochum, director of the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, and project coordinator Paulette Porter-Stransky as part of National Engineering Week (Feb. 19-25).

While Sweet Briar has hosted high school girls before, this marks the first time 11- and 12-year-olds were invited to put their engineering skills to the test.

“Many of them are scared of science because they think it’s a boy thing,” said Vickie Mays, math teacher at Nelson Middle School.

And yet, she said, the girls had been excited about this day.

“I actually have a lot of boys that were upset that they couldn’t come,” she added.

The event focused on building an audio speaker. After a brief introduction by Yochum, the girls were each given small plastic containers that held a speaker kit. The kit contained all the necessary elements for building a simple speaker: one plastic cup, one Styrofoam cup, one piece of sandpaper, one small square magnet, one speaker jack, insulated wire and two rubber bands. It also came with detailed instructions and pictures.

Gracie Harris (left), 12, uses a wire whisk to fine-tune her speaker.

In addition, the engineering department provided a variety of miscellaneous items students could use in the process, such as colorful paper plates, cupcake holders and wire whisks.

“We want to encourage them to be creative,” Yochum said. “We want them to say: ‘What happens if I do this … ?’”

Watching the girls get excited about engineering is the best part, he said. And there was certainly no lack of enthusiasm in the room, especially as students pulled out their iPods and phones to test their science projects.

“With all the technology they’re using, it’s cool that they’re learning how some of it works,” Yochum added.

Throughout the two-hour session, Yochum and assistant engineering professor Bethany Brinkman, as well as student assistants Kate Fanta ’15 and Kelsey Barta ’15, zipped from table to table to help the girls build their kits, and to explain how electromagnetism works.

The engineering department developed the speaker kits several years ago and has taken them to various schools and conventions. The fact that they’re easy to use and can be altered safely is a huge plus, Yochum said.

But it’s not just about getting girls to like science, or encouraging them to step out of their comfort zone. It’s also about letting them find that comfort zone.

“Girls really get to experience the benefits of an all-women’s school when they’re here,” Yochum said. “There aren’t any boys to annoy them.”

Next weekend, Sweet Briar will open its doors yet again for another engineering event. Geared toward high school girls, the Spring 2012 Explore Engineering Weekend takes place for the fourth time on March 2 …read more
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