Math Options Program Shows 'Book Math' in Practice

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Can a Popsicle-stick bridge help a middle-school girl cross the engineering and mathematics gender gap? Organizers of the Math Options Career Day at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, believe it can.

The Popsicle workshop was one of 39 interactive classes that were offered at this year’s Math Options program. More than 260 seventh- and eighth-grade girls participated in the event.

The girls attend 46 different schools in Erie, Crawford, Warren and Potter counties. They are less likely than their male classmates to find careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to studies.

The Math Options workshops, taught by Penn State Behrend faculty and by women employed by the region’s largest technical companies, including GE Transportation and LORD Corp., attempt to close that gap.

The programs expose the girls to female role models. They also show the real-life applications of “book math”: Students in this year’s courses powered robotic arms, used heat to create sound and altered the flow of tabletop water streams.

They also heard from two keynote speakers: Catherine Franks, a mechanical engineer at FMC Technologies Measurement Solutions, and Heather Yahn, a West Point graduate who works as a project manager in health-care construction.

“When young women are making decisions about their futures and what they want to be as adults, it’s important for them to have role models, and to make real-life connections to women who are working in careers,” said Peggy McCarthy, director of Continuing Education at Penn State Behrend. “By connecting young women with female professionals who work in science, technology, engineering and math fields, they can be positively influenced. They hear these women’s stories: how they balance family and work, what educational tracks they needed to complete and what they do every day when they go to work. That interaction is very powerful and motivational for seventh- and eighth-graders.”