Middle school students design and engineer bridges at GE Girls program

Weeklong Penn State Behrend program is one of just 20 in the world
a bridge designed by girls during GE Girls @ Penn State Behrend is pictured.

As part of the Bridge Design session, middle school students who attended GE Girls @ Penn State Behrend were tasked with building trusses and ultimately assembling a bridge. Here is a look at the finished product.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. -- “Does that piece fit?” Danni Kehl, an eighth-grade student at Iroquois Middle School, looked to her partners for guidance.

“Here, try this,” said Samantha DiBacco, also an eighth-grader at Iroquois.

Together, the girls were rapidly interlocking beams, screws and connectors to build trusses and ultimately assemble a bridge.

“This really is a challenge because we have to swap parts in and out to make sure everything fits,” DiBacco said. “It’s nice though because we’re learning how to do engineering.”

Kehl and DiBacco were two of the 50 seventh-and eighth-grade female students who attended GE Girls @ Penn State Behrend during the week of June 19-23. The program — one of just 20 in the world — is a weeklong science, technology, engineering and math camp held on campus. Attendees are paired with female mentors from GE Transportation. Other women — GE engineers and faculty members from Penn State Behrend — lead classroom and lab sessions.

The program is intended to expose girls to careers and fields they might not previously have known about. In the Bridge Design session, the name of the game was engineering a bridge.

“They’re each given a plan, and then they work to build their own section of a bridge. It shows them how things like bridges, ceilings and structures work,” said Nancy Study, a lecturer in engineering who facilitated the Bridge Design session. “This helps give them the idea that they can work in science and the STEM fields like anyone else. Girls can go out and get all of these jobs, too.”

When it was all said and done, Kehl and DiBacco were part of a group that successfully created a bridge measuring several feet. It was an impressive sight, taking eight girls in all to hold the bridge up.

In addition to the Bridge Design session, attendees also built robots, experimented with computer-aided design using Autodesk software, and toured the college’s 10,500-square-foot plastics processing lab. In total, they did more than 20 STEM activities during the week.

“We’ve done all kinds of different things,” said Alexis Stockman, an eighth-grade student at Wayne School. “We’ve made chapstick, a 3D keychain and these bridges. This has been great.”