Friday, January 30, 2009

Schooling Girls on Real-Life Engineering

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Schooling Girls on Real-Life Engineering

Wielding screwdrivers and shears, a crew of Oakland middle-school girls was doing some serious damage to a pair of hapless computers. The girls pried open a PC tower and a laptop and eagerly began extracting such components as the memory, hard drive and power supply. “This is awesome,” said Jessica Nguyen, a sixth grader at Montera Middle School. “It’s so much fun to take things apart!”

That kind of mayhem—and enthusiastic response to it—was exactly what Cal graduates Christy Hurlburt (B.S. ’00 EECS), Judy Lau (B.S. ’00 EECS) and Tao Ye (M.S. ’97 EECS) had in mind.

The three alumnae were visiting Montera on a late November afternoon as volunteer mentors for Techbridge, an Oakland-based program that introduces girls in grades 5 through 12 to technology, science and engineering with a variety of after-school and summer activities. Launched by Chabot Space & Science Center in 2000, Techbridge encourages girls to explore fields where women have traditionally been underrepresented.

“When I was in middle school, I don’t think I knew what an electrical engineer or a computer scientist was,” said Ye, who, like her colleagues, was a first-time Techbridge participant. A research scientist at Burlingame-based Sprint ATL, where she focuses on network measurement and security, Ye earned her M.S. at UC Berkeley and is now a doctoral student at the University of Melbourne. “For me, getting women involved in engineering has been sort of a passion,” she said.

During their two-hour visit with the 22 girls, the Berkeley graduates described the personal journeys that led them to study engineering and venture into technology careers. “I found myself really interested in science and math,” said Lau, who came to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 13. Ye, a native of China, said that, for her, science and math “explained how the physical world worked in a logical way.” Hurlburt, a former Cal lacrosse player who grew up in Colorado, told the girls, “There are so many ways you can use your technology or science background.” As a service manager for Medtronic, Hurlburt supervises a team that helps implant and check pacemakers, defibrillators and other cardiac devices.

Hoping to expose the girls to the actual work of an engineer, the volunteers led a series of hands-on activities. “You’ll get to rip open a computer and see its guts,” promised Hurlburt.

The resulting “computer dissection” exercise was a hit with the middle-schoolers. “I wanted the girls to know what is inside a computer and not feel intimidated by it,” said Lau, a hardware engineer who designs electronic testing products for LeCroy Corporation.

Despite their obvious familiarity with computers, few of the students had ever opened one up to poke around inside. (“I’d get in so much trouble,” confided one sixth grader.) As seventh grader Isabella Lew leaned over the PC tower to loosen a tight screw, she reflected on the value of such an exercise. “If it’s working, it’s fine,” she observed. “But if it’s not working, you might have an idea of why it’s not.”

The Techbridge students also played a hopscotch-like game that demonstrated how a sorting network operates and later acted out the roles of “routers” and “packets” to learn how information is sent on the Internet.

Techbridge has worked with a total of 2,500 girls in 30 East Bay schools. The program, which receives funding from the National Science Foundation and private and corporate foundations, is offered to interested girls at the participating schools, and since the start of a partnership with Berkeley in 2005, nearly 70 engineering graduates and current students have become volunteers. “We have volunteers who come back year after year,” says Linda Kekelis, Techbridge’s project director. “We definitely realize that role models are good for girls.”

And vice versa. Hurlburt, Lau and Ye said they all plan to continue working with Techbridge. Amazed by the energy in the classroom as the girls pulled the computers apart, Lau said, “It turned out to be the best volunteer experience I’ve ever had.”