Day introduces girls to engineering

Tuesday, Room 124 in Mason Laboratory morphed from an engineering and physics research area full of students and professors to a site where girls played with Silly Putty to learn the basics of solids and liquids.

Eighty middle- and high-school girls from New Haven-area schools participated in the Yale Faculty of Engineering’s Girls in Engineering Day, which included panels — led by both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty — such as “Effects of Consumer Products on Fish and Drinking Water” and “Brain Shift Compensation during Brain Surgery.”

The girls, who were recommended by their teachers, used the day to supplement the science classes they take at their schools. The event was part of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ nationwide Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.

Physics major Eleanor Millman ’07 said the daylong event helped expose young women to science in a way that usually does not happen in high schools.

“You can never have too many options,” she said. “Typically, science in high schools can be dull, and you don’t do very interesting experiments, so it is good to have activities like this where you can see cooler experiments done by real scientists.”

Millman helped lead “Soft Matter, a.k.a Squishy Physics,” a presentation that explained the concepts of viscosity and surface tension by performing experiments using water and household goods such as pepper, food coloring and corn syrup.

She demonstrated viscosity by first putting a drop of red food coloring into a beaker of water and watching the water become the color of the food coloring. To show the differences between water and corn syrup, Millman added a drop of food coloring to corn syrup and stirred it, causing the corn syrup to also adopt the red color. But when she stirred it the opposite way, the red streaks went back into the initial trail that occurred when the food coloring was added. She explained to the girls that because corn syrup is more viscous than water, it can be mixed and unmixed.

Amid a roomful of visibly amazed peers, Shakinah Williams, a junior at New Haven’s Metropolitan Business School, said Millman’s Squishy Physics was her favorite experiment of the day.

Biomedical engineering major Katie Johnson ’07, who led a group of girls through the day’s presentations, said she thinks the event proved beneficial for the high schoolers. Johnson said presentations were particularly valuable as a way to better appeal to young women, who she said may not be targeted often enough by science interests.

“I feel like the more that people learn what [engineering] is and what it is about, the better it will be,” she said.

Johnson became involved in the day through her work with Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society. This is the group’s primary service activity, she said.

Williams said spending the day at Yale’s engineering buildings exposed her to new aspects of science she had not previously considered.

“I had never heard about this stuff,” she said. “When you think of engineering, you think of math and boring stuff, not fun things like we did today.”

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