Sunday, November 9, 2003

Schools create inroads into male-dominated field

At Ursuline and Walnut Hills, girls build - and rebuild - engineering expertise

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Women in the workforce

[IMAGE] Ursuline students Meg Gunther (left), a junior, and Allison Mayborg, a senior, take measurements for the robot they are building for an engineering contest.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
BLUE ASH - Samantha Sheets and a dozen of her friends at Ursuline Academy just built a simple robot from scrap for a contest.

Over the next few months, they'll take apart, analyze and rebuild a disposable camera. They'll assemble and test a bicycle for strength and speed. Come spring, they'll create a conveyor belt system.

Typical teenage girl stuff? Hardly. Yet Samantha and her friends represent engineers of the future, part of a growing national push to encourage more women to enter the overwhelmingly male field.

Ursuline Academy and Walnut Hills High School in Greater Cincinnati are the only two high schools in Ohio - and among few in the nation - teaching juniors and seniors what college freshman engineering students learn.

"There's not a lot of role models for women engineers. Hollywood hasn't done a great job at that," says Jeanne Sheehy, marketing director of the Society of Women Engineers, based in Chicago.

Engineering, she says, hasn't kept up with professions like medicine and law, where women make up about half of college graduates. Only 11 percent of working engineers are women.

By the time Samantha and her friends go to college, they'll have an advantage over their engineering peers.

Ursuline, an all-girls Catholic high school of 647, partnered for the first time this year with Ohio State University, which provides it with the same course material that OSU freshmen engineering majors use. Ursuline students learn computer-aided and engineering design, advanced calculus and reverse engineering, the process of taking something apart to discover how it's made and works.

Students also learn how to work as a team, how to document every bit of work so others can follow it, and how to give PowerPoint presentations.

Samantha says the math and science are fun, but the social aspect of engineering - working on a project with a team - is like putting together a puzzle.

"I like the problem-solving," she says. "I like to see what real engineers do."

As real as possible

Jeff Hetzel, a former aeronautical engineer who teaches the Ursuline course, makes it as real as possible.

"I make these girls work as hard as if they were in college, because they've got to compete," Hetzel says.

Here's what you get in Ursuline Academy's college-level engineering course:
Curriculum: Ohio State University introductory course for freshmen
Who takes it? Seven juniors and seven seniors (any upperclassman is eligible).
How long? One year
Hands-on learning: You learn project design, engineering design, integration of engineering disciplines, how to prepare and write formal lab reports, ethics in engineering; team work/problem solving; computer-aided design programs; potential career paths and options.
Projects: Assemble and analyze bicycle, re-engineer disposable camera, design and build a sorting conveyor-belt system.
College credits: It depends on the college. OSU gives full credit, depending on students' portfolios.
Many high schools sponsor engineering workshops or short-term seminar courses, but few offer a yearlong, college-level course, says Audeen Fentimen, chairman of nuclear engineering at Ohio State.

Eight years ago, Fentimen revamped OSU's freshman engineering courses because the school was losing 60 percent of its engineering majors to other fields of study after the first year or so.

The old curriculum, she explains, required too much textbook work but not much hands-on design or engineering. The new curriculum lets freshmen dabble in what real engineers do.

Now, OSU retains 60 percent of its freshman engineers through graduation, she says. Still, most of its engineering students are white males, she adds.

That's why three years ago, Ohio State decided to work with Walnut Hills, Cincinnati Public Schools' highly regarded college preparatory academy. Ohio State chose Walnut Hills in part because of its diverse student body and strong math curriculum.

Since then, about half of the 102 Walnut Hills students who took engineering have been females, and half have been minorities.

When Fentimen was a student 20 years ago, she was the only woman in her engineering classes. It's better today, but still, fewer than one in five students is female.

Attracting more engineers is crucial to keeping America globally competitive, says Sheehy of the Women Engineers.

"There's going to be a critical need for engineers in the future," Sheehy says. "But there are still many girls in high school and grade school who are directed away from math and sciences."

Fentimen disagrees, saying plenty of women and girls take math and sciences but they're not aware of engineering as a career.

"Most people don't realize how much of a helping profession engineering is," Fentimen says.

To combat that, Ohio State takes its engineering students to a neonatal unit to observe equipment that helps premature infants survive.

"Engineers developed that equipment," Fentimen says. "You look at our environment, cleaner air and cleaner water. Engineers have a hand in that. Computers, DVDs, things we use every day and take for granted, engineers developed."

Inspiring creativity

Beyond its practical aspects, engineering taps into Meghan Mannion's creative spirit.

"Engineering encompasses design and a lot more creativity than people give it credit for," says the Ursuline junior, who lives in Evendale.

Rosie Elefante says she likes re-engineering best.

"Breaking stuff is fun," she says. "It's just putting it back together so it works that's tough."

Rosie says she gets intimidated at times by the science, but she says she's more comfortable asking questions at her school than she'd be in a college lecture hall.

Even in coed settings, high-school engineering classes work for girls, Fentimen says.

In three years of classes at Walnut Hills, there has been no gender gap in grades, says Liv Ramstad, one of two teachers running the classes. Last year a female student was top of the class, and this year, another girl is leading the pack.

That's no surprise to Samantha Sheets at Ursuline. The daughter of a mathematician, she grew up feeling confident about math and science.

She calls herself a geek now. But in a few years, she says, she'll call herself a chemical engineer.


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