Inspiring the Next Generation of Women Engineers

Apr 15 2015 | By Jesse Adams

Some 90 young women interested in STEM careers attended the 4th annual Engineering Exploration Experience (E^3), hosted by Columbia Engineering’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Girls from high schools across New York had the opportunity to get an overview of engineering through interactive demos, hands-on design, workshops, and lectures from special speakers and Columbia Engineering faculty.

L-R: SEAS SWE members Colette McCullagh, Minah Kim, Angel Yang, and Erin Vaughn

Colette McCullagh ’17SEAS and Minah Kim ’17SEAS served as SWE’s event chairs, while Angel Yang ’18SEAS, Erin Vaughn ’18SEAS, and Jenny Lee ’17SEAS comprised the organizational committee.  Columbia Engineering’s Outreach Programs also helped coordinate the annual conference, held on campus March 28.

“It was incredibly rewarding to show these high school girls the challenging and exciting roles engineers play,” said McCullagh, an earth and environmental engineering major. “Women are still tragically underrepresented in the field, and experiences like these help start students on the path towards studying engineering and pursuing careers in the profession.”

SWE created the all-day event to expose young students to the exciting opportunities in engineering, both in academia and industry. The organization also hosts numerous activities throughout the year such as recruiting sessions, community service opportunities, and faculty and alumni dinners.

Participants attended a candid keynote from Lucy Chan, vice president of growth markets and global services business development at IBM. Recounting her remarkable life story, from growing up poor in Hong Kong to emigrating to North America and starting at IBM in the days of computing with punched cards, she advised the young women to learn every day and keep their ambitions lofty.

“At the beginning of my career at IBM, I felt lost—it wasn’t the kind of programming I was used to,” said Chan, who won IBM an Emmy Award for a digital television project. “But I wouldn’t let that stop me, and I learned and I learned, and I became an expert at software testing—the challenge of understanding how the whole system works when success is making the machine fail.”

Following questions that ranged from what doors are opened by graduate research to whether Chan had been a teenage nerd, students split into groups and attended a variety of engaging demos and presentations highlighting the diverse research interests at the Engineering School.

Sessions ranged from an overview of civil engineering with Shiho Kawashima, assistant professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, along with SEAS students Maikia Abdallah and Jaclyn Fu, in which participants made their own concrete mixes, to a lightning tour of modern integrated circuits and systems with Mingoo Seok, assistant professor of electrical engineering. Roxana Geambasu, assistant professor of computer science, introduced fundamentals of computer systems, enabling students to build their own basic apps, while Vineet Goyal, assistant professor of industrial engineering and operations research, demonstrated how coin tosses can illustrate how to make optimal decisions from a large set of possibilities, introducing basic tools in discrete mathematics and probability.

Later in the day, Mike Massimino BS’84, professor of practice in mechanical engineering, shared memories and insights of his time as a NASA astronaut in a concise introduction to human space flight. Other sessions included a workshop with Electrical Engineering Senior Lecturer David Vallancourt BS’81, MS ’83, PhD’87 on analog audio, in which students got to build circuits capable of transmitting music by laser light; an exploration of optical properties and wavelength propagation by directing lasers through Jell-O with graduate students from Professor Keren Bergman’s Lightwave Research Lab; a look at forces experienced by the cervix during labor with Andrea Westervelt and Kyoko Yoshida, mechanical engineering PhD candidates in Assistant Professor Kristin MyersSoft Tissue lab; a hands-on lesson in tissue engineering and scaffold design with Twizzlers and members of Columbia Engineering’s Society for Biomaterials; and a presentation from Engineers Without Borders on ongoing programs in Ghana, Uganda, and Morocco.

The high school students also interacted with a panel of five women engineers and competed with peers to build load-bearing chairs from piles and piles of newspaper. The experience concluded with an awards ceremony recognizing the sturdiest chairs and the girls’ ambitions as budding engineers.

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