Behrend outreach program highlights careers in engineering

High-school girls test a model car during an engineering program at Penn State Behrend.

High school students test a car powered by a rubber band at Penn State Behrend's annual Women in Engineering Day.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — In the hallway, flinging balls of scrunched-up aluminum foil, a group of high-school students learned about kinetic energy — one of several STEM topics at Penn State Behrend’s annual Women in Engineering Day.

The balls launched from rubber-band catapults. The tighter the bands, the higher the toss.

Hitting the target was only one part of the activity, said Melanie Ford, director of Youth Education Outreach at Behrend. The real goal was for the students to make adjustments — tightening the bands or shortening the catapult arm — to improve the ball’s arc. That’s engineering.

The hands-on component was essential to the lesson, Ford said. The Women in Engineering Day program is designed to encourage students — girls, in particular — to consider careers in STEM.

Male students often abandon STEM learning because of poor grades, Ford said. Female students drift away for a different reason.

“Typically, they don’t finish because someone talked them out of it,” she said.

The Women in Engineering Day program combats that with a series of breakout sessions led by female engineers. Amelia Wear, a mechanical engineer at Wabtec, led a workshop called Flower Power; she taught the girls how to solder wires and create a circuit that powered an LED flower.

“What they are doing today is a direct door to any electrical project they will do,” Wear said. “This is the start of learning how things work. Learning these basics makes you so much more capable of learning the technology of the day.”

Analise Wolfe, a junior at McDowell High School, learned how to solder. In another class, she built a model natural gas pipeline.

She took note of the women leading both programs.

“I don’t really get exposed to a lot of women in engineering,” she said. “I want to be the first in my family to go to college for that.”

Mia Liu, also a junior at McDowell, doesn’t yet have a specific career path in mind. She knows she likes physics, however.

“There is a lot of creativity involved,” she said of the Flower Power workshop. “The skills this is testing are something I don’t really see every day in the classroom. The amount of innovation and the ways you get to problem-solve are unique. It’s more than you get by listening to a lecture.”