Mia Chis surveyed the room and smiled.
She watched as high school students busily constructed model boats, with each vessel designed to hold the largest amount of pennies possible. The activity, titled “Whatever Floats Your Boat,” was part of Women in Engineering Day, held Friday, Nov. 4, at Penn State Behrend.
“Girls just don’t realize their potential because they’re not typically exposed to things like this,” said Chis, a senior electrical engineering major and member of Penn State Behrend’s Society of Women Engineers, which led the “Whatever Floats Your Boat” activity. “I love doing this kind of stuff because it was not long ago that I was in (high school students’) shoes. Who better to mentor them than us?”
Women in Engineering Day, which was attended by 137 area high school girls, is designed to introduce high school girls to engineering fields and careers through a series of hands-on activities.
“I really wish we had something like this near my high school when I was a student,” said Chis, a Pittsburgh native. “I have a lot of friends, who I think would have done great in engineering had they been exposed to a day like this.”
While it may be too late for Chis’ high school classmates, it’s not too late for today’s regional high school girls. That’s why Women in Engineering Day was created. The outreach effort has grown to host as many as 30 schools annually, and more than 1,170 students have attended the event during its 11-year history.
During the day, more than 50 female mentors — professionals from Erie Insurance, FMC Technologies, GE Transportation, LORD Corporation, Zurn Industries and National Fuel Gas as well as Penn State Behrend students — presented workshops to the girls, who came from high schools in Erie, Crawford and Warren counties and western New York.
In “Whatever Floats Your Boat,” students worked to build a water craft that could hold as many pennies as possible using two paper cups, five plastic straws, 12 inches of duct tape and 12 inches of plastic wrap. Participants had a budget of $1,500 and could purchase additional supplies with that money. Every penny that a boat would hold without sinking was worth $100.
Seneca High School students Samantha Grove and Jessica Wisniewski partnered for the activity. They opted to purchase two more cups and bought additional tape and tin foil. They placed the foil around the cups as a wall, designed to ensure that no water made it into the cups.
“Our original idea was just to put the cups together, but we figured they would come apart,” Grove said. “Also, two cups would not have been stable, so that’s why we bought two more. The foil also helped because it went over the sides of the cups. As the cups would start to go down with more pennies being added, water would not get in the cup.”
Overall, the girls spent $500 on additional supplies. Their boat ended up holding 291 pennies, giving them a total profit of $30,100.
“I love building things, and this has been great,” Grove said. “Girls who come here today might know what an engineer is, but they do not always know the different options. There are a bunch of different types of engineers, and it’s great to expose them to that.”