Karleigh carefully dabs glue onto a miniature wooden bridge trellis she helped design. Then she aligns the trellis to other bridge parts that her teammates created. Another girl props the trellises up with books while the pieces are being secured. Finally, the miscellaneous wood strips become a bridge strong enough to support a model train.
Across the room, another team constructs a bridge out of pasta. A student shaves off a piece of protruding fettuccini. "Look at all the pasta dust," another girl says, pointing to a small pile of pasta shavings.
The girls have completed this project, and many more, as part of Lehigh's ongoing CHOICES program (Charting Horizons and Opportunities in Careers in Engineering and Science).
Before the camp began, Karleigh, a middle school student, knew only a little about engineering. "I thought engineering was complicated and hard to achieve," she said. After a week at the CHOICES camp, she said she was considering engineering as a career possibility. Shikhi, an eighth grade camper, may not pursue engineering, but said she gained a deeper appreciation for it. "I learned how engineers think and solve problems," she said.
Amie Humphrey, a Lehigh civil engineering graduate student, has worked with CHOICES and supervised some of the experiments. She was inspired to major in civil engineering by her grandfathers, who are both engineers, and by her father, who works with engineers. She believes that CHOICES provides each participant with an understanding for how things are built and what engineers do. "It's a chance for girls to see successful women in engineering," Humphrey says, "and to see engineering as an interesting educational path, if not a career."
Visit many engineering firms in the country and you’ll notice something is missing – women. Only about ten percent of the engineering workforce in the United States, and about 20 percent of engineering students, both nationally and at Lehigh, are female. “Women are extremely underrepresented in engineering and several sciences, with adverse consequences for the related scientific and engineering professions, as well as for the individuals themselves,” says Carol Muller, founder of MentorNet, an e-mentoring network for women in engineering and science.
The gender gap is narrowing, but slowly, says Muller. The percentage of women engineers is growing, but only relative to the increasing numbers of men leaving the field due to retirement.
The P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science at Lehigh University is trying to show young women that science and engineering can open many career doors and that these professions are far from “nerdy.” This outreach program attempts to stimulate students’ interest in science, math and engineering. "We want the girls to leave with the notion that science and engineering could be in their future," said David Wu, dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science at Lehigh University.
Janet Hollingsworth, now an undergraduate in civil engineering at Carnegie-Mellon University, says CHOICES opened her eyes to the opportunities in engineering. “Even though both my parents were engineers at the time, I knew very little about the different fields within engineering aside from being told that ‘all engineers take things and make them better.’ The CHOICES program provided a useful window through which to view engineering.”