For hundreds of area middle and high school girls unsure of what engineering means, a world of career possibilities opened for them Thursday at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.
“Engineering is a way of thinking, of being a problem-solver,” Karen Hogue, a nuclear engineer with Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC told them. She sees engineering as “how to apply science and math to fix the world’s problems.”
Hogue was one of six female engineers on a panel discussion at Y-12’s eighth annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering event. Y-12 was expecting more than 600 girls from 25 schools in seven counties at the New Hope Center, but school closures because of illness dropped attendance to about 400.
Eagleton Middle School sent nearly all its eighth-grade girls to the event. That gave 65 students an opportunity to hear from someone other than their teachers what engineering is, explained Gina Grubb, who teaches STEM at the school.
The girls did more than listen.
In the exhibit hall a Heron’s fountain demonstrated hydraulics while a 3-D printer created gears, volunteers in exoskeletons showed how the suits support industrial workers, and pennies turned silver through electroplating.
Nearly two dozen exhibits brought to life fields such as chemical, mechanical, electrical, industrial, nuclear and fire protection engineering.
“What could you make that an engineer wouldn’t have a hand in?” asked Ben Green, a mechanical engineer talking to girls at the 3D printer.
An analytical chemistry display offered stickers for the girls featuring an old saying with a modern correction. It reads, “Women belong in the kitchen” — except that in this new version the word “kitchen” is crossed out and replaced with “laboratory.” Another sticker reads, “Who wants to be a princess when you can be a scientist?”
The University of Tennessee’s Tickle College of Engineering and Roane State Community College’s Mechatronics Program were on hand to answer questions about education opportunities.
Female engineers on the panel encouraged the students to take not only classes such as calculus, physics and chemistry, along with robotics and additive manufacturing, but also art, which fosters an ability to think in three dimensions, and music for creativity.
“Engineering is not just science,” said Noe Laney, a mechanical engineer.
Many girls at the event hadn’t thought about a career in engineering yet, but others’ interest already was piqued, often by family members.
EMS student Sadie Carl-Sanchez was thinking about chemical or electrical engineering, with inspiration from a grandfather who is an electrician.
A movie about the Ebola virus led Heritage High School sophomore Alissa Ramoie to think about a career in epidemiology, but then she discovered a biomedical engineering program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University when her brother went to school there.
Emilee Warren, a freshman at HHS, is interested in computer science and digital design. “I like to see something in my head and then put it on a computer,” she explained.
Katrina Bates already had seen how engineering can bring her art to life, using the 3D printer at EMS last year to design a key chain for her volleyball team.
Avery Risher, a sophomore at Greenback Public School, said her grandfather encouraged her to attend the event. “I wanted to keep my options open,” she said.
Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC, which operates Y12, knows why it is important to encourage girls to enter science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Less than 8 percent of women who entered college in 2014 chose one of those majors, and nearly a third switched to another field while in school.
Girls had a chance to put their mechanical, communication, innovation and teamwork skills to the test in a challenge Thursday that required them to stack cups not with their hands but a tool: a rubber band attached to four strings. Girls had to pull the strings to open or close the rubber band around each cup and maneuver it in place.
The girls also left with new skills to land a summer job or ace a college interview.
Y-12 engineers Sheryl Houston and Tiffany Malone coached the teens through a “Slay All Day” session, showing them how to identify their gifts, speak confidently when meeting someone and walk way with a business card or email address to follow up.
“A lot of the girls don’t know how to advocate for themselves,” Houston said, and no matter what path they choose they will need to know how to advocate for themselves and others.