Girls get WISE

HOUGHTON – Nationwide, only 18 percent of engineering graduates are women, according to Cody Kangas, Associate Director in the Center for Pre-college Outreach at Michigan Technological University. Not for long if the almost 230 seventh- and eighth-grade girls packing Tech’s Student Development Complex Wood Gym Tuesday have a say.

Tech hosted Get WISE – Get Women In Science and Engineering – to both educate girls about possible career paths in the largely male-dominated professions and give them hands-on opportunities to blend scientific principles with creativity.

“Our goal today is exactly what the title is all about, we’re trying to ignite interest, ignite passion, ignite a drive for these young ladies to consider science and engineering for their future,” Kangas said. “This is one of the best turnouts, best groups we’ve ever had.”

The event has been around since the early 1990s, but it’s continued to evolve. Tuesday featured question-and-answer sessions with female undergraduate and graduate students at Tech, presentations from science teachers at Tech and three 45-minute engineering projects.

One project involved creating a structure on top of a brick that reaches as far across a taped line as possible. A second one asked students to design a boat that will hold as much weight as possible without sinking (using duct tape, three cups, a 10-inch strip of plastic wrap and five straws). The third project required the girls to collaborate on an aircraft that will stay airborne as long as possible. All projects involved limited materials, but infinite possibilities.

“There’s no scoring, no judging. It’s all an open, free atmosphere where they can dig into science and have fun with it and figure out what they have to do to get to the answer,” Kangas said. “They can all put their own spin on it, creativity, which is a huge part that’s missing today in science and engineering education is that lack of creativity.”

Karmyn Polakowski and Seoyoung Hong, eighth-grade students at Houghton Middle School, were working with seventh-grade Ironwood student Madison Clauson – who had to leave her school at 5 a.m. to attend the 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. event – on the final hovercraft project.

“We can use our own ideas and our own imagination to create what we think will work best for the project,” said Polakowski, who doesn’t necessarily plan to be an engineer, although her father is one.

“Some sort of science, but not really engineering, but this did open a new mindset as to what it is,” she said. “… I’m glad it can happen because a lot of the girls I’m sure didn’t know they had an interest in engineering, but being introduced to it will definitely encourage them to do it.”

Hong agreed: “I didn’t really know what exactly engineering was until today. I think it’s a really great experience that you should just try out even if you’re not interested.”