Junior-high participant works with an instructor on
designing a top-performing car for the most economical
costs as a part of the Gee workshop.
Peck the keyboard, send information through the hard drive's
circuitry, and the desired aim materializes on the computer's
So this is engineering.
When you're Julie Gan, eighth-grade daughter of a computer
engineer, it is, more or less.
Of course, just as one collects experiences with age, Gan's
perception of the field broadened over the years. And then
the first Girls Experiencing Engineering (GEE) program at
the University of Memphis happened, and it cracked Gan's view
of the field wide open.
Environmental, biomedical, electrical - the list of options
flowed in names that piqued Gan's interest rather than squashing
OK, so maybe this engineering thing could jumpstart the creative
juices in ways Gan never imagined.
"Before I would just think about my dad as an engineer,"
says Gan. "He was always into computers. That's all he
did. I never knew there was creative stuff other than that."
The first GEE event at the University of Memphis showed Gan
just how broad the field of engineering is.
GEE, which was sponsored by the Women's Foundation for a Greater
Memphis, was conceived with this very goal in mind: to dismantle
junior high girls' preconceived notions of engineering and
reconstruct their perceptions of it.
GEE student prepares to test the car she constructed.
It is all part of GEE's aim to populate engineering professions
with more females. A gross imbalance between female and male
engineers in the world persists. In the United States, only
11 percent of engineers are women, according to the U.S. Census
Bureau. The program has gotten off to an auspicious start
- Women's Foundation for a Greater Memphis already has agreed
to fund the project next summer.
In designing the program, some of the primary coordinators
were motivated by the wish that they would have had something
like this when they were younger.
"It offers girls opportunities that I didn't have when
I was a kid," says Anna Phillips Lambert (BA '92, MA
'94), director of technical communications in civil engineering
at the U of M. "I was never encouraged to do stuff like
that - learn how to put things together."
"I really thought about it in terms of what I would
have been interested in," says the program's lead instructor,
Dr. Stephanie Salyers Ivey (BS '96, MS '98, PhD '03), assistant
professor of civil engineering. "When I was in middle
school and high school I don't remember ever really being
exposed to engineering. I knew about it just because of my
The GEE program featured 34 students over the two separate
one-week sessions and the observation of eight middle school
teachers as well as instruction by U of M faculty members.
The program's participants were girls entering the seventh,
eighth and ninth grades from a broad swath of area schools,
says Dr. Paul Palazolo (BS '74, MS '76), a GEE coordinator
who is assistant dean and assistant professor of civil engineering
at the U of M.
During the sessions the girls worked in groups, using K'Nex
(think highly evolved Tinker Toys) to build certain projects
that engage analytical and thinking skills. One challenge
involved constructing a tiny car that would be able to travel
15 feet into a two-foot box for a modest cost, says Gan.
The process took some trial and error. Too cheap and too
few parts wouldn't go the distance. But too expensive a budget
was out of the question, too, even if it did result in the
work on their model cars during the GEE program.
"It was good because it was a big challenge, and it
sort of motivates us to do better," Gan says.
The girls also kept daily journals and made class presentations
that were videotaped as a part of a process to hone their
communication skills, Lambert says. To demystify the field,
the conference's programmers recruited a number of successful
female engineers, who spoke to the girls.
"What we tried to do is find the successful role model
woman engineer who was moving professionally up the ladder
to come in and talk to the young women," says Palazolo.
Presenters included Laura Whitsitt (BSME '87, MSME '88),
director of research at Smith + Nephew, and Merrie Embry (BS
'00, MS '03), an environmental protection specialist in the
division of Superfund for the Tennessee Department of Environment
and Conservation. Embry, who is Ivey's sister, talked about
her role as an environmental engineer, which sparked a number
of raised hands and questions from the girls.
The convergence of engineering and environmental conservation
"was something they'd never thought of," Embry says.
Gan's career goals give shape and form to Embry's words.
The eighth-grader's one-time aspirations of becoming a medical
doctor (too much school!) have transmuted into the goal of
becoming a biomedical engineer. This way, Gan can still work
in the health-care field and help people.