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Young Women Explore Engineering Careers

February 20, 2006 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A busload of students from Milwaukee, a girl from Memphis, Tenn., and students from inner-city schools in Chicago will be among the more than 300 participants at Northwestern University’s 35th annual career workshop for young women thinking of becoming engineers.

The outreach program -- the oldest of its kind in the Chicago area -- will be held from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Technological Institute, 2145 Sheridan Road, Evanston. The event introduces high school and junior high school girls to the wide range of opportunities available in engineering and is sponsored by the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the University’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

The day’s events include an engineering design competition, tours of laboratories, hands-on experiments, captivating demonstrations of physics and chemistry, a goal-setting workshop focusing on different engineering majors, and separate panel discussions for students and parents. In some of the labs participants will devise their own water filtration tests, see how pollutants travel through a model stream in a laboratory, use 3-D goggles to view reconstructions of metal, make paperweights out of concrete and learn about prosthetic and orthotic devices.

“Career Day offers participants an excellent opportunity to experience some of engineering’s excitement by meeting a diverse group of female engineering undergraduates, alumnae and faculty,” said Ellen Worsdall, assistant dean of the McCormick School. “This one-day event has the potential to make a real difference in the lives of these young women. Past participants have told us how amazed they were to learn of the variety of careers available to someone with an engineering degree.”

Marlanda English, president of ECS Consulting Associates and a Northwestern alumna, will kick off the program with a keynote address from 9:15 to 9:45 a.m. in Ryan Auditorium during which she will challenge the young women to pursue their dreams and become engineers.

In the design competition, held immediately after the keynote address, teams of five will use balloons, rubber bands, straws, soda cup lids, washers, paper clips and tape to build a prototype of an unusual hotdog delivery system. From the auditorium’s balcony, each team will launch its parachute to see if it can accurately deliver its hotdog (in this case a wooden spool).

Students on other lab tours will view an experiment that flew on the space shuttle; learn how certain metals remember their original shape when heated or cooled; use tiny wireless sensors to monitor a room remotely; design a people mover system for the University; learn about tissue engineering; learn what the periodic table has to do with giving gemstones their beautiful colors; operate a robot car; and see and learn about a pacemaker designed from computer chips.

The popular chemistry and physics demonstrations emphasize the importance of these fields to the study of engineering. Eberhard Zwergel, a senior lecturer in chemistry, will lead a team of chemists in creating explosions, causing chemical color changes, forming gases and conducting chemiluminescent experiments in a fast-moving show demonstrating the wonders of chemistry. In a separate presentation, physicists will demonstrate a series of phenomena which, while they seem magical, such as a gravity-defying bicycle wheel, are only obeying the natural laws of physics.

In their afternoon session, junior high school students will build a catapult to send supplies (in this case a sponge) over a castle wall. They also will build a roller coaster and have a marble travel along its course, including sending it upside down and finally landing in a cup.

In addition to engineering faculty, graduate students and administrative staff, 80 Northwestern undergraduates (male and female) serve as volunteers. The career workshop is held in conjunction with National Engineers Week (Feb. 19 to 25).

Career Day has been held at Northwestern annually since 1970, when only 4 percent of the students in the McCormick School were women. Today, nearly one-third of McCormick students are women, and McCormick leads the Big Ten with the percentage of female students it graduates.