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Women In Engineering (WIE) Connects With Van Nuys High School Teens

February 14, 2007 — They’re pretty good at math and science, but these teenage girls had no idea what engineering was all about.  So their teachers at Van Nuys High School got on the horn to USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering and made a date to bring them to campus.  

Allie Anderson, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering, helps girls launch their bottle rockets.

It wasn’t a typical day of briefings and guest speakers, though.  During Women In Engineering (WIE) Connect, these girls got some special treatment and experiential insights into a variety of engineering disciplines, such as civil and environmental engineering, biomedical engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, computer science and industrial/systems engineering.

Twenty Viterbi School undergraduate women worked to put the event together and serve as mentors for the girls, who were in 9th-12th grade, according to Kate Baxter, director of Women In Engineering. 

“Our students really did a terrific job putting this day together and mentoring these high school girls,” Baxter said.  “It is critical that we connect with younger female students and encourage them to study and excel in math and science, so that in years to come, we are able to attract more women to the field.”

WIE Connect was a first-time event, but everyone enjoyed planning and participating. The day started with a breakfast on the second floor of Ronald Tutor Hall and a welcome address from Associate Dean Louise Yates.  Each girl was given a packet of materials and a WIE Connect t-shirt. Then they filed into a classroom downstairs for Engineering 101, a presentation of important statistics about women in engineering, both in the industry overall and at the Viterbi School of Engineering.
Two high schoolers put the wings on their rocket.

A panel of Viterbi School women undergraduates presented brief introductions to each of the majors offered at USC, explaining what each field was, why they chose to major in it, what projects they’ve worked on in their classes, and where that type of engineer may work after graduation. 

Then it was on to the Amazing Engineering Race.  The race was designed to augment the Engineering 101 presentations with hands-on learning exercises done at five stations in or around the Viterbi School.  First the girls broke into teams and went on a treasure hunt to find the locations.  If they had been paying attention during the morning presentations, they’d have clues to find each station; if not, they’d waste valuable time wandering around trying to find each stop.

At the aerospace engineering station, they built bottle rockets and launched them into the sky. At the biomedical station, they extracted actual DNA samples from strawberries using household materials.  At the industrial and systems engineering station, they learned how to design an industrial process to efficiently package and ship a product. At the computer science station, they were introduced to computer logic by building tanagrams. At the civil engineering station, they played the game of Jenga to understand the planning and thought-processes involved in building structures.

Courtney Tine, right, helps girls organize their factory line.

“Teenage girls are a tough crowd to please,” said Viterbi School presenter and mentor Courtney Tine, a junior majoring in industrial and systems engineering. “We wanted to design exercises that would make an impression on these girls one way or the other, so that they went away from the day understanding what engineering is and what disciplines they might like better than others. We hoped they would leave being able to say that they liked biomedical engineering better than astronautics, or industrial engineering better than computer science.” 

At lunch, nine Viterbi School staff and faculty members sat at different tables and talked informally with the high schoolers, answering their questions and encouraging them to mingle with other Viterbi students, staff and faculty.  The group then reconvened in the E Quad for a wrap-up session and toured the campus.

“WIE Connect was a huge success,” Baxter said. “We wanted to bring high school girls to campus so they could begin learning firsthand what engineering is all about, as well as interacting with our amazing, dynamic, talented undergraduate Viterbi women.  It worked!”

The Viterbi School team, wearing 'WIE Can Do It!' t-shirts, flexes its muscles.

Viterbi School undergraduate students leading the Engineering 101 presentation were: Jessica Midkiff,  junior, ISE; Shanling Yang, freshman, aerospace engineering;  Jessica Calhoun, junior, aerospace engineering; Farzana Ansari, sophomore, biomedical engineering; LauraLee Brown, junior, biomedical engineering; Kristin Coyle, junior, chemical engineering; Jackie Reed, junior, civil and environmental engineering; Kimberly Ross, sophomore, computer science/computer engineering; Amy Lin, junior, computer science; Courtney Tine and Kate deSousa, both juniors in industrial/systems engineering.