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magazine home > archives > fall 2004 > features

An ambitious program hosted by the U of M's Herff College of Engineering is shedding light on nontraditional career paths for young women.

Gee Whizzes!
by Jamie Peters

  Junior high students working on model cars

A 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 monitor screen.

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 it.

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
A 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 parents."

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 best car.

  Model cars

Students 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.

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