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Students talk to girls during IAP

Women studying electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) at MIT had an opportunity during IAP to introduce the idea of studying engineering to high school girls, thanks to a grant from Microsoft to the MIT chapter of Eta Kappa Nu (HKN).

"We tried to reach high school women who may have an unrecognized interest in engineering," said Lauren B. Fletcher, a senior in electrical engineering. "We hope that by creating personalized interaction with them and by sharing our enthusiasm for what we do that we will motivate and empower some of these women to pursue education in engineering."

Ms. Fletcher is program director for the HKN/Microsoft Women's Initiative; she organized the training sessions for the MIT women, along with Felice T. Sun, theHKN/Wo-men's Initiative chair.

Eighteen female EECS students visited more than 40 public, private, magnet and all-girl schools and nearly 2,000 students in nine states and Washington, DC in January. The presentations were targeted at but not limited to female audiences.

The project began in the spring of 1998, when Microsoft challenged HKN -- the national honor society for electrical engineering and computer science -- to find ways to encourage women to study in that field. Women comprise less than 20 percent of college students in EECS and less than 10 percent of electrical engineers in industry.

"Given the relatively small number of women who choose to study electrical engineering and computer science, women with the extraordinary talent required to attend MIT as well as the interest to pursue EECS are a real national treasure. It's gratifying to see these MIT women already starting to function as leaders and role models for younger students," said Harold Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Ms. Fletcher visited schools in Houston with co-presenter Monisha Merchant, also a senior in EECS.

"We received an extremely positive response from the students, teachers, counselors and MIT women involved. Many schools have said they hope we can return next year to inspire more potential female engineers," Ms. Fletcher said. "We have also received many thank-you letters from the schools and e-mail from students who have individual questions about preparing for engineering in college."

The methods the MIT women used to reach the next generation were, well, very MIT. For example, Ms. Fletcher and Ms. Merchant's presentation included a discussion with the students about a familiar product -- the CD player -- and the engineering that went into designing it.

"Through the demonstration of a robot with electronic sensors, we showed how electrical engineering and computer science are used together. We also shared many personal stories, including our transitions from high school to college, how we chose electrical engineering, and some of the opportunities we have had in these fields.

"We both worked as engineers and teachers in China last summer as part of the MIT-CETI program. Monisha worked one summer in the White House Office of Science and Technology," Ms. Fletcher said.

Bhuvana Kulkarni, a junior in computer science who visited schools in Connecticut and New York during IAP, "was attracted to Women's Initiative mainly because I wish I had seen a presentation like that when I was in high school. I think it would have been great to see concrete examples of successful women in engineering," she said.

Ms. Kulkarni did a three-part presentation with Yuka Miyake, a senior in electrical engineering. They started with "an icebreaker activity during which we asked the girls to build towers using toothpicks and marshmallows," she said. "They could talk about building for five minutes, but when they were actually building the tower for another five minutes, they could not talk.

"Next, we asked them to come up with things they learned during the icebreaker/group activity. We then related these engineering concepts (communication, teamwork, trial and error) to the disciplines of electrical engineering and computer science. We also discussed examples of each discipline.

"Third, we showed them two demos. I showed them a lightbulb with a potentiometer hooked up to it in a circuit. The potentiometer acts like a variable resistor to make the light switch dimmer or brighter; I discussed household appliances that use this kind of device. Yuka then showed them a steel ball suspended in midair using electromagnets. After that she discussed the application of this kind of concept in levitating trains," Ms. Kulkarni explained.

Felice T. Sun, a graduate student in the Speech Communications Group (part of the Research Laboratory of Electronics), and her co-presenter, Tara Brown, a junior in EECS, visited mostly suburban public schools near Denver.

"I think the women students in particular felt less intimidated to ask questions and to find out more about EECS since we were women,too," Ms. Sun said.

"We talked about some of the stereotypes, and also some famous [computer science] women in history. We talked about job opportunities in the EECS fields, some of the classes we took in EECS, and finally we had a little demonstration -- we built a working loudspeaker with a cup, magnets and some wire."

Both Ms. Kulkarni and Ms. Sun reviewed their presentations on behalf of future women electrical engineers with an eye toward making next year's presentations even more effective. In general, they agreed that the best-received aspects of the sessions were interactive; in particular, sharing their experiences at MIT was appreciated.

Ms. Kulkarni is "definitely going to participate in this program next year. I would advise anyone who wants to participate to make sure and be enthusiastic and psyched about engineering. I think that's what came across the most in the presentations that Yuka and I did, and I think that was really reassuring for the high school girls to whom we were presenting," she said.

Ms. Sun encouraged other students to build on this year's experience.

"It was a lot of fun -- definitely a worthwhile effort for anyone who wants to reach out to high school students. Although it takes a bit of time during the semester and also during IAP, the benefits really make it well worth it," she said.

Added Ms. Fletcher, "I was very impressed by the enthusiasm, creativity and commitment of everyone involved. This is the first year of the program, so all of the objectives and presentations were created entirely by this year's participants. The presenters put a lot of time and energy into this project in order to make it rewarding and successful."

Other presenters for the HKN/Mi-crosoft project were Theresa Burianek, Ying Cao, Peggy Chen, Carol Choi, Anyuan Guo, Danielle Hinton, Pei-Lin Hsiung, Eden Miller, Mandy Mobley, Maggie Oh, Amy Strickert and May Tse.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 24, 1999.

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