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Encouraging Female Engineers

Chantilly Academy offers all-girls course in engineering.

The Chantilly Academy is offering its first-ever, all-girls course in engineering, and it’s proving both popular and practical. It’s attracted a talented and enthusiastic group of students, received support from professionals and provided a potential, new career path for many girls.

TWO DOZEN female students, about half juniors and half seniors, are enrolled in Engineering Systems I — a sampler of systems, mechanical and electrical engineering, plus robotics. And the significance of this class — part of the Girls Exploring Engineering (GE2) program — extends way beyond the walls of the school.

"There’s a shortage of young people selecting engineering courses in college and as a career," explained Joan Ozdogan, the academy's career-experience specialist. "Nationwide, only 17 percent of the students in engineering schools are female. And if we’re going to maintain our technological and competitive edge around the world, in this field, we need to build up our pipeline of engineers and increase the percent of female engineers."

In the next 10-15 years, she said, an estimated 15 million baby-boomer engineers in the U.S. will be retiring, so it’s crucial that capable and well-trained people be available to replace them, carry on their work and also move forward in their own directions.

At Chantilly, each girl has her own mentor who’s a professional, female engineer. And Ozdogan matched them up according to each student’s field of interest — such as chemical, civil or industrial engineering.

"They’re role models for the girls, and we hope they’ll bond and the relationships will continue," said Ozdogan. "These mentors can even advise them on colleges and what to expect in engineering school. Or they can talk about a day in the life of an engineer, how they became engineers and what their particular field is like."

With many of the top engineering schools now mentoring female engineers, she said, "We’re preparing these students now for entry and success in this field. And our mentors at The Chantilly Academy will show the girls that there are engineering futures in industry, government and higher education."

IN NOVEMBER, the students and their mentors teamed up to solve an engineering problem together. And in February, during National Engineers Week, they’ll go as a group to an event celebrating it. The class will also take two field trips, including a behind-the-scenes engineering tour of a facility — for example, perhaps a peek at how the Metro’s civil, electrical and mechanical engineering systems all work together to keep things running smoothly.

"We’re also considering a King’s Dominion trip to examine all its safety engineering and better understand the engineering complexities behind everything," said Ozdogan. "We might also go to Micron Technology in Manassas, which manufactures memory chips, to learn about robotics and engineering in manufacturing systems. That way, the students can see practical applications of what they’re learning in school, in the real world."

She also plans to bring in guest speakers to talk about their jobs in engineering. Said Ozdogan: "We received a grant from Noblis, in Falls Church, to help underwrite the cost of inviting in distinguished women in engineering to do two to four workshops and challenge the girls with engineering projects."

The Girls Exploring Engineering program also received a $10,000 grant from the ExxonMobil Foundation to support the mentorship program. The money may also go toward field trips, materials and the girls’ National Engineers Week celebration.

The program has an advisory board including representatives of every engineering school in Virginia, plus George Washington University and the University of Maryland, as well as from the world of industry. Ozdogan said they all think the girls’ engineering course is a wonderful idea.

"Our girls will also do outreach to two middle schools in the spring," she said. "They’ll give presentations about girls in engineering to seventh- and eighth-graders. I’m really excited because — as a result of pulling this engineering program together — I’ve become an engineering wannabe."

OZDOGAN also stressed that girls may go from engineering school to other technology areas, such as medicine, biomedical engineering or law — for example, patent and intellectual-property trademarking. It’s possible, she said, because "the skills, discipline, and the way they’re taught to think and problem-solve will also make them successful in other areas."

Also new this year at the academy, for both boys and girls, is the opportunity to conduct independent research in engineering. They were recommended for it by an upper-level, faculty member, based on their outstanding achievements in their engineering courses, plus overall academics.

"In October, we placed seven outstanding seniors in it, off campus, working alongside a mentor in industry, higher education or government," said Ozdogan. "They’re each spending time with an engineer in the workplace, researching and helping solve a real-world problem relating to that entity; then they’ll write a paper on it. And all seven want to become engineers."

In November, The Chantilly Academy signed a formal partnership agreement with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. The ceremony was held at the school, and the union will enable the girls to learn satellite technology firsthand.

"They’re building a Cube Sat — a cube-sized (2x2x2-foot) satellite — for a July 2009 launch by the NRL," said Ozdogan. "They’ve started it in class and will finish it at the NRL."

Ivan Galysh, a supervising engineer at NRL, lives in Chantilly’s Armfield Farms community and has previously worked with high-school students on rockets and satellites, exposing them to the world of engineering. He was present at the partnership-signing, as was Peter Wilhelm, director of the Naval Center for Space Technology at NRL.

"I wanted to encourage what Ivan has been doing for several years," said Wilhelm. "And when he told me about The Chantilly Academy, it seemed like a great school to team up with." And Doug Wright, the academy administrator, couldn’t have been happier.

"WITH OUR FOCUS on moving our students toward science, technology, English and math, this is a great partnership and a fabulous opportunity for our students to get exposure to some real-life application with the NRL," he said. "It provides future opportunities for the students to explore, and there’s a possibility for the girls to go next summer into the Science and Engineering Apprentice Program sponsored by NRL."

Galysh said it’s an eight-week, hands-on program in which the academy girls will continue working on their satellite-construction program. Also pleased with the partnership-signing was Marty Rothwell, who teaches Engineering Physics and Engineering Systems at the academy.

"The NRL has given us a tremendous opportunity," he said. "It’s a great chance for the kids to work on cutting-edge projects and find out what areas of engineering are available to them."