Canadian Consulting Engineer

Engenuity

"Ladies, start your engines." The starter's cry launches the teams' newly minted vehicles down the track. Would their vehicles start, go, stay the course, stay on course, stop? Would their passenger s...

December 1, 2003  By Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng.

“Ladies, start your engines.” The starter’s cry launches the teams’ newly minted vehicles down the track. Would their vehicles start, go, stay the course, stay on course, stop? Would their passenger survive? The pit crews watch their whimsical creations go speeding (in a manner of speaking) down the course — the full length of a cafeteria table — urged along by enthusiasm and anxiety. Long seconds later the vehicle more or less hits the finish line, the passenger more or less intact. The crowd cheers. The contestants dissolve in excited laughter mixed with relief and pride.

And the winner is … everyone. In this competition engenuity is the goal and they’ve all certainly been engenious.

ENGenuity is a week-long program for female high school students held at Queen’s University’s Faculty of Applied Science. It is designed to introduce young women to engineering. Twenty-three students entering grades 11 and 12 from schools in and around Kingston, Ontario attended the program in June.

Like most introductory programs, ENGenuity provides students with a glimpse of the various branches of engineering, but it also does a good deal more. It provides the environment and activities that capture the thrill and satisfaction of solving an engineering problem, creatively and competently. Students engage in hands-on exercises, they learn from their peers and are coaxed and inspired by faculty, guest speakers and role models who are mostly established female engineers. The students begin to answer those vexing questions: How does it work? and, How can I make it work?

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Anne Topper, outreach co-ordinator in the Faculty of Applied Science, is in charge of the program. She holds Masters degrees in system design and in education. She and her colleague Lynann Clapham developed ENGenuity and won a McConnell Curriculum Development Award in 2003. The outreach program also has help from a number of enthusiastic undergraduate engineers who tested and developed the activities.

On day one, students are introduced to the profession and some of the essential products and components of engineering such as structures, machines, and circuits. They find out how a disposable camera works by dissecting it. They also start to acquire some of the basic skills and techniques needed to make mechanical and electrical devices. They design circuits, learn to use workshop tools and get to apply their new skills to real projects.

By day two, learning to build a circuit translates into building a flashlight. As the week progresses, so do their skills. “They come not knowing how to use a drill press, tap holes, solder wires,” says Anne Topper. “By the end of the week they are using the equipment confidently without help.” Building and confidence are essential features of the program, one reinforcing the other. But technical skill alone does not a competent engineer make. Creativity, communication and inspiration are all vital components and are part of the program.

Finally, the acid test of the students’ new-found skill is the grand challenge of the week. They are divided into teams and charged with the task of transporting a passenger (a smiling and long-suffering polystyrene ball) from point A to point B. Equipped with some specifications and a few rules, the teams tackle the task with creative flair. Materials may be ordered from a list of supplies. Like any engineering project, budget is a key consideration.

The young mothers of invention designed and built a delightful array of vehicles, fanciful but functional. The vehicles were propelled by various means ranging from jet propulsion (an inflated balloon), to standard batteries and the tried and true stored energy of the rubber band. They manipulated wheels, axles, drive trains, bodies made out of metal, polystyrene, plastic straws, string. They planned, designed and built their vehicles, painted them bright colours, blessed them with funky names like “The Fighting Trees” and sent them off. They made them start and go in a sort-of straight line. Stopping is somehow not much of a problem. Most, if not all of the projects came in under budget.

Despite setbacks, problems and the looming deadline, the participants and their student advisors had lots of fun. Flushed with success, the teams lined up to take a bow and claim their candy prizes in categories that included “craziest” and “faster than a speeding bullet” at the closing ceremonies. Enthusiastic applause all round.

A random sample of the young women participating in the ENGenuity program pronounced the experience “great,” which is just what the organizers and faculty were hoping to hear. Would their “great” experience translate into enrolment in engineering? That remains to be seen. Even after many years and many efforts, gender equity in engineering remains elusive. The significant progress made in the 1980s and 90s in Canada seems to have stalled well short of the 50% mark. There may even be a slight decline. The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers reports that women made up 20.3% of the total enrolment in engineering nation-wide in 2000-2001, a slight decrease from the 20.6% level of the previous year.

The prospect of a decline in female enrolment is worrisome enough to generate a response from those concerned about the future of the profession. Professional Engineers Ontario, NSERC/Nortel Joint Chair for Women in Science and Engineering in Ontario, and the Ontario Women’s Directorate have formed the Women Into Engineering partnership to address the issue, and identify programs and oppotunities that might make a difference. The first phase of their project was a detailed analysis of the prevailing situation. The study was undertaken by Etta Wharton who produced a report, “Where We Are and Where We Need to Go” in 2001. Wharton writes: “It is disappointing to see that a number of schools, including some of the largest … have shown significant decreases in first year enrolments from 1999 levels in 2000.” One of these schools is Queen’s University.

Part of the study’s mandate is to identify strategies that work. Encouraging women into a field that still projects a distinctly male image needs a variety of interventions. Some of these need to occur long before students reach high school, and all must eventually lead to fundamental change in the culture of the profession if success is to sustain itself.

While long term change may be beyond the scope of the partnership’s current effort, the study points to several activities that work well in the short term. Effective outreach is one of those activities.

The ENGenuity program has some of the ingredients necessary for success. The program is supported by the engineering faculty, the staff is dedicated, it features mentors and role-models and, very important, it has practical activities. Etta Wharton reports that, “Hands-on activities are particularly popular and powerful as they increase the confidence of the girls ‘to actually do it.'”

In the long run, the profession must encourage the best talent, female and male, without special intervention but by appealing, and supporting, both women and men equally.

Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng. is contributing editor of Canadian Consulting Engineer magazine.

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