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Mizzou Engineering targets young women in STEM

Students from various high schools across the state of Missouri work together to build a bridge out of spaghetti noodles and marshmallows at the first annual Mother-Daughter Engineering Day on April 9. The bridges were then tested to see how much weight they could hold.

Engineering historically has been a male-dominated field, but University of Missouri Engineering’s outreach program is working to include more women. In the past few months, they have sponsored two events — a Mother-Daughter Engineering Day and also hosted a separate activity day at MU for a group of young women who participate in Project Lead The Way at St. Louis’ Ritenour High School. Engineering student services staff also participated in the high school’s celebration of engineer’s week, all with the goal of educating female students about engineering, their options and what Mizzou Engineering has to offer.

Mother-Daughter Engineering Day was held April 9. The event provided young women in sixth through ninth grades — and their mothers — a day of activities, presentations and recreation to introduce them to engineering.

“If you ask a young student if she wants to be an engineer, it might seem boring to her, but if you ask her if she wants to change the world, it’s more interesting,” Tina Balser, the college’s recruitment coordinator said.

Jill Ford, director of engineering student enrichment, and Balser are both pursuing master’s degrees with a focus on women’s roles in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Balser said her research has revealed the importance of early exposure to young students to spark interest.

“It’s critical to develop these interests early on,” Balser said.

Balser enlisted the help of MU Engineering’s student chapter of Society of Women Engineers (SWE) for help with the mother-daughter event. MU mechanical engineering junior Claudia Krueger, who serves as SWE’s middle school engineering project coordinator, lent a hand with the day’s activities.

“We wanted to focus on three engineering myths and present activities that dispel those misconceptions,” Krueger said.

A mother/daughter team works together to prepare their egg for the egg drop at the first annual Mother-Daughter Engineering Day on April 9.

The three myths were first, that engineering is boring, disproved with a fast-paced task of using a variety of materials to design a vehicle that would keep an egg from cracking when dropped. Mother-daughter teams had 10 minutes to create the containers.

The second activity sought to reveal that engineering is investigative. Teams mixed glue and water to create a new substance, Gak, which closely resembles a popular putty-like substance found in toy stores. The task — creating a polymer — revealed the value of exploration.

The third activity demonstrated that engineers work in teams, not alone behind a desk. Groups of mothers and daughters had a time limit to construct a bridge using spaghetti noodles and marshmallows.

Cynthia Kramer of SCOPE (Science and Citizens Organized for Purpose and Exploration) also hosted a robotics booth.

Krueger believes outreach to women is fundamental. She started at Mizzou as a business major, but changed after she realized engineering was what she enjoyed.

“I wish someone would have come to me and showed me what engineering was really about when I was that age,” Krueger said.

Krueger is one of the 13 percent of females out of the 2,700 undergraduates in the College of Engineering this academic year.

“Outreach is so important. We could see these young women who came were excited and really interested in the activities we did. They may be the next generation of engineers,” Krueger said.

Balser said that the event was extremely successful and hopes to host it annually.

Project Lead the Way is a national program aimed at educating middle and high school students in STEM. In February, the MU College of Engineering played host to 60 freshman women from Ritenour who are participating in the program. 30 of those students invited a female friend along to total 60 women. The group learned about nanotechnology, competed in chemical car competitions and spent their afternoon doing hand on activities in biological engineering.

“Most of these girls have never been exposed to engineering, and afterward they were excited and wanted to come back,” Balser said.



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