Thirty middle school girls from Baltimore city schools got hands-on experience as novice engineers Sunday at an event organized by Johns Hopkins University students to encourage more girls to pursue engineering.
During the four-hour ‘Ready, Set, Design’ event, the middle school girls, with help from Johns Hopkins engineering students, worked on designing and building solutions for problems as diverse as water sanitation and cleaning up the Gulf oil spill. The theme of the day’s event was “Clean Air, Clean Water, and Our Future.”
Ready Set Design was founded in 2004 by associate professor of engineering Lester K. Su and several of his engineering graduate students. Su, a former Capitol Hill science education advocate, was particularly interested in correcting the lopsided four-to-one ratio of men to women in the field of engineering, despite women outnumbering men on college campuses three-to-two.
While doing research on the subject Su realized that girls were being pushed away from engineering as early as middle school.
“If you look at all the testing data and math enrollment, girls get steered away from technical subjects somewhere in middle school,” he said. ”They do great in math until then, but then after high school they stop taking math classes and start doing a little less well on standardized tests.”
In order to address this shift away from engineering, math and science, and get girls excited about engineering Su came up with “Ready Set Design.”
“We started doing this because we wanted them to learn that engineering is a creative thing and we wanted them to learn it younger so that they would be interested in it and not just because they were interested in math and science,” he said.
Ready Set Design holds one to two sessions per semester, and Su is pleased with the overall attendance of the events.
Many of the student helpers were affiliated with the school of engineering, while others became involved through the Center for Social Concern.
Sophomore engineering student Allison Tse, and vice president of Ready Set Design, commented that had she had access to a program like Ready Set Design she might have been attracted to engineering earlier.
One major limitation of the program, however, is that it is limited to girls who are capable of finding their own transportation to the session. Ready Set Design is not currently capable of providing transportation due to liability issues when it comes to assuring the well-being of the children when off-campus, organizers said. This seemed to limit the diversity of the group at Sunday’s session. Su noted that previous sessions had drawn more from inner-city schools.
Still, the room in Levering Hall was buzzing with activity as the middle school girls and volunteer engineering students set out to design solutions to environmental problems.
Aly Luckett and Anjali Khanna, two seventh graders from Kilmer Middle School, in Vienna, had heard about the program from their girl scout troop and were excited about getting to design a ship that collected oil from above and below the water from the recent Gulf oil Spill. Luckett was encouraged to go by her family as her grandfather was a structural engineer and professor at Bucknell University.
When asked what they had learned, Khanna replied that she “learned the steps of how to engineer something, brainstorm, and then build it.” Both girls agreed that they were more likely to take math and science classes in the future.
Correction: The associate professor of engineering’s name is Lester K. Su, not Lester K. Wu.