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Inspiring tomorrow's women engineers

"Before I came here," says Pooja Y., a Lehigh Valley middle schooler, CHOICES participant, and -- just maybe -- future engineer, "I didn't think I wanted to be an engineer, but now I'm considering it."

Maybe that's because Lehigh's Summer CHOICES camp, held this year from July 13 to 17 and July 20 to 24, is exactly what it claims to be on its Web site: "CHOICES is the coolest engineering and science outreach program in the known universe. It happens to be for middle-school girls."

Every summer, Lehigh University's P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science hosts more than 40 sixth, seventh and eighth grade girls over two one-week sessions. Each session is an immersion into a variety of engineering disciplines that maintains a perfect balance between 'inspiring your future' and 'you are twelve-years-old -- let's have some fun.'

"We try to give them a sense of engineering and how to harness their own creativity," says Bill Best, a Professor of Practice in engineering who also serves as director of Lehigh's innovative IDEAS degree as well as its CHOICES program. "The goal is to open eyes -- to give these young minds a chance to realize that they can do it if they want to."

"That is the struggle, that is the battle," he continues. "I think it is more of the social stuff. By the time that these girls are in middle school, they are experiencing social pressures that tend to lead them away from science and math. We're trying to smash that; those are the walls CHOICES is breaking down."

CHOICES leads Lehigh Valley girls to explore such areas as physics and mechanical, chemical, and industrial engineering with Lehigh faculty throughout the week. The camp prides itself on providing opportunities for hands-on, roll-up-the-sleeves collaborative project work: the magic is in making and doing, together, as a team.

Throughout the week girls work on projects such as a Rube Goldberg device, a process to complete a simple task in the most elaborate way possible, and a competition to build the most effective balsa wood water tower. They delved into the world of 3D printing with Brian Slocum, manager of Lehigh's Design Labs, who gave the girls a chance to work with 3D printers and explore some of this new technology's applications. Campers also took part in a panel discussion featuring successful professional women engineers.

"We are very happy to see stronger interest from young women in engineering and manufacturing," says Andreas Torell, vice president and commercial plant manager of Bosch Rexroth, which sponsors the annual CHOICES program. "We're doing what we can in all Bosch communities to stimulate interest in this field. The CHOICES program makes science and technology fun and interesting, and it gives young women the opportunity to connect with industry leaders at just the right time.""

Each week culminates with a chance for the girls to show off what they've built and learned to their families. This includes operating the Rube Goldberg devices, and filling the water towers until they collapse -- usually all over Professor Best's shoes, to the delight of the campers and families in attendance.

"They do hear about engineering in school and elsewhere," say the parents of two of this year's campers, Emma and Tess G., "but they don't get to experience it. By actually getting to put their hands on it, they get a different perspective."

All about inspiration

According to Best, the most important element to the ongoing success of CHOICES, along with the support of Lehigh Engineering events manager Shaku Jain-Cocks, are the women students who serve as project mentors.

"They do far, far more than lead the projects," says Best. "The kids clearly look up to the Lehigh students who lead their groups. The mentors serve as strong, positive role models for a new generation of women scientists and engineers."

This year, due to support from the Henry Luce Foundation, CHOICES has beefed up its approach to developing undergraduate students into mentoring roles. Lehigh's Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars are a prestigious group of women undergraduates who receive a fellowship grant in return for taking on advanced research work and participation in the CHOICES program.

Engineering students Lauren Boller '15, Jordan Greer '16, and Elizabeth Weiler '16 were part of the first class of CBL Scholars to support CHOICES. Says Greer: "Mentoring the girls at CHOICES gave me a chance to influence and encourage them to become engineers in the future. Many of our activities were much like the lab work I do at at Lehigh -- taking measurements, doing calculations, and discovering how the world works. I look forward to seeing these girls grow up and show the world what women engineers can do!"

Juliana Telles '16, a guest lecturer and environmental engineering major, fielded a flood of questions during her presentation. "Not only did they understand my presentation," she recalls, "but then they asked me a lot of challenging questions that went far beyond what I had just presented. They were past the basics and hungry for more -- it makes me really excited for their futures. What will they be able to achieve in college, compared to what is possible now?"

"In addition to these necessary women role models, I think men also need to step up and be role models for girl engineers," says Best. "These girls will benefit from as many role models as they can get, both women and men. The bottom line is that society is in desperate need of more engineers, specifically women who will help provide diversity of perspective necessary to solve the complex challenges of modern engineering."

-Amber Schrum '16 is a student-writer with the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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