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Engineering for Girls

Women's Initiative MIT Program helps build bridges to engineering at Chantilly Academy.

With marshmallows and toothpicks in hand, aspiring engineers from The Chantilly Academy competed in groups of three to create a stable structure designed to defy gravity.

These 75 students were not typical males interested in engineering. Instead, they were all females attending the Women's Initiative MIT Program, which was hosted by Chantilly Academy last Tuesday.

AS THE STUDENTS held onto their marshmallow and toothpick structures on one side, they carefully pushed the rest of the structure as far off of the table as possible without having it fall apart as the two MIT representatives, Nicola Tan and Aisha Bobb-Semple, judged the structures and announced the winning team.

"Creativity is an important aspect of engineering," Tan said. "Engineering is really interesting, but most importantly, it teaches you a way to think about things."

The program came at a perfect time, increasing interest and helping to kick off a new course that Chantilly Academy is offering next year called GE2 or Girls Exploring Engineering. This course is designed exclusively for young women and will include one-on-one mentorship with a female engineer throughout the year, expert guest lectures, field trips, and the ability to articulate credits at George Mason University Volgenau School of Information Technology with a grade of "B" or better.

Doug Wright, the academy administrator, is excited about GE2 and pleased to have Tan and Bobb-Semple come from MIT to speak with interested students.

"Girls are doing excellent in the high level science and math courses, they just haven't made the jump to engineering careers," Wright says. "We hope that we can open the door for them because they can do it." Chantilly Academy has offered all-girl sections in several engineering courses for the past six years in an effort to make engineering courses more comfortable and less intimidating.

"We looked at gender equity within programs and there was a severe gap locally as well as nationally," Wright said.

Tan and Bobb-Semple began the program by telling the students that in 1966 only 1 percent of all engineers in the U.S. were women, but in 2000 this statistic jumped to 20 percent.

"Girls are just as creative as guys," said Tan. "It's just that most girls are not introduced to engineering, or it isn't presented as an option," said Bobb-Semple.

SHARING AN EXAMPLE of how creative one can be with an engineering background, Tan told the students about Teresa Baker, a graduate student at MIT. "Right now she is working on making a new kind of ice cream with carbon dioxide, so that it fizzes in your mouth like soda."

All of the girls who attended the program either expressed interest in science and math, or chose to come because their teachers saw potential and asked if they were interested. It was clear the students were full of enthusiasm.

Christine Beauchene, a junior at Chantilly High, said, "Basically everyone in my family is an engineer. My uncle works for NASA and I've been to his lab and fell in love with it." When asked what she would like to do one day, Beauchene said: "I'd like to be a biomedical engineer and help people by making prosthetic limbs."

Beauchene was just one of many students interested in engineering at the MIT Women's Initiative program. Beatrice Peng, another junior, loves making things like bookshelves from scratch.

"I like having the satisfaction of knowing how something works," says Peng.

Some girls, like junior Bethany Kroese, are also on Chantilly Academy's unique robotics team. "We are given a set of parts and have to build a robot in six weeks that is designed to play a specific game," said Kroese. "Then we compete in regionals by having the robot play the designed game against another robot. If we win then the championship is in Atlanta.

During the program, Tan and Bobb-Semple asked students to define engineering and name several gender stereotypes that surrounded the field.

"Engineers are all guys and girls are the worst in the class," said one student.

"There are only unattractive women in engineering," said another.

Tan shared pictures of her life at MIT proving to the students that the stereotypes were, of course, untrue. After showing a picture of a social event with all-female engineer students, Tan said, "I think my friends are attractive." The students laughed and nodded.

The program also included elaborating on numerous possibilities for engineering careers from being a chemical, civil, mechanical, or aeronautical engineer to furthering one's education and continuing on to become lawyers, doctors and professors.

"MY MAIN MOTIVATION for becoming an engineer is that I can have a bigger impact in engineering than in pure science. I have a chance to be creative and it's more exciting and fun," said Bobb-Semple who is a sophomore at MIT studying biological engineering. "It will help me a lot to become a doctor."

Additionally, Tan pointed out that engineering careers come with many benefits. "By becoming an engineer you will always have a challenging job, good pay and benefits, a chance to be creative, and the opportunity to improve the quality of life and help human kind," says Tan.

Girls who do not attend Chantilly High but reside in Fairfax can apply to enroll in Chantilly Academy and take part in GE2 and other engineering courses as well.