Assembling the framework for a career in engineering

Feb. 10, 2005 3:02 p.m.
Spaghetti towers

At left:  Leona Qi (third from left), a graduate student in electrical engineering, and Gina Monaco (third from right), a junior majoring in chemical engineering, watch one of their teams put the finishing touches on their spaghetti tower.
Photos: John Jameson

High school students Celeste Abou Negm and Blair Ligelis had just succeeded in building fragile towers from nothing but spaghetti-stick beams and gumdrop fasteners. But what really caught their imaginations on a recent Friday afternoon was the idea of engineering as an exciting career choice that goes far beyond clever construction projects.

The students were among 110 girls from six New York girls schools who participated in an event organized by Princeton University graduate and undergraduate students to encourage young women to consider careers in engineering. Maria Klawe, dean of Princeton's School of Engineering and Applied Science, three other faculty members and 20 Princeton students traveled to the Chapin School in New York City to meet with the girls, talk with them about engineering and lead them in hands-on activities.

Spaghetti towers

"Everything about this day was great in that it made engineering seem much more accessible," said Negm. She said she particularly enjoyed talking with Princeton graduate student Abigail Faulkner, who told about her own experiences pursuing a career in chemical engineering.

Ligelis said she appreciated hearing the Princeton students describe the different specialties of engineering, which were much more varied than she had imagined. "When I think of engineering the first thing I think of is building things, actual physical things," said Ligelis, who was impressed to hear about fields such as operations research and financial engineering which applies engineering techniques to problems of business and finance. "I didn't know that engineering could help you not only form buildings but also form companies and how to structure them. I thought that was very interesting."

That is exactly the kind of reaction the event's organizers hoped to spark. "What I really hope is that when you leave today, you're going to be thinking that engineering might actually be something that is fun to do," Klawe said as she introduced the program. Engineering, she said, is particularly well suited for people who want to integrate knowledge of diverse subjects, develop leadership and teamwork skills and help solve the world's problems.

"I think that in terms of the needs of society and the opportunities in society, I can't really imagine any education better than engineering to prepare you for whatever you are going to do after you graduate," she said.

Faculty members Emily Carter of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Li Shiuan Peh of electrical engineering and Julie Young of civil and environmental engineering also spoke about the excitement and satisfaction they find in their research and teaching.

Carter, a theorist whose work includes research on combustion, flashed a picture of a diesel truck belching smoke. "I don't like that," she said. "Wouldn't it be nice to design fuels that work in diesel engines and are very efficient but don't produce all that soot?" Carter also talked about the benefits of going to international conferences. "Science and engineering are so international you create networks of friends all over the world," she said.

The Princeton students, members of the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering and the Society of Women Engineers, spoke about coursework that can be exciting as well as challenging. Annora Bell, a senior majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering, caught the girls' attention when she described a junior-year project that required building a search and rescue robot. "It had to go through an obstacle course, pick up a medical device, climb over a wall and go through a cave," she said, drawing gasps from the audience.

Spaghetti towers

Following the talks, the girls divided into groups led by Princeton students, who gave them instructions for building towers using uncooked spaghetti sticks for beams and posts and gumdrops for fasteners. The teams competed to build the highest, best-looking towers with the fewest number of gumdrops. Tension and excitement ebbed and flowed through the room as some towers shot upward and others rose slowly, but then surged ahead as some of the first ones began to collapse.

"I had been leaning more toward the humanities, but I've been more interested in science as I've gotten older," said Negm. "And I'm definitely going to go home and try to build another spaghetti tower."

That was the kind of inspiration Chapin and the other schools were seeking, said Whitney Ransome, executive director of the National Coalition of Girls Schools, which helped coordinate the event. "We want to go beyond just words and to bring the girls within our schools into direct contact with women who are following these career paths, so the girls who like math and science see how broadly these subjects are applied," Ransome said. "One of the many things that was great about this event was the ability to do hands-on activities and feel what it's like to get excited, to get frustrated, to be determined and to realize you can do it."