Snacks become part of object lessons at e-Girls workshop

Pretzels and Twizzler licorice sticks made for great snacks and useful construction materials for young women, grades 8-11, attending Boise State University’s annual e-Girls workshop in June.

BSU hosted the event as an introduction to engineering for 57 young women this year. The workshop featured Barbara Morgan, astronaut educator, and activities facilitated by representatives from BSU, NASA, Idaho National Laboratory, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology Foundation and the transportation department.

ITD’s Sharla Nelson, Bridge Design, and Mary Lockwood, HQ Roadway Design, supplied the snacks as building materials for load tests.

“We chose to use food to demonstrate how different materials each have their own unique properties and how those properties make some materials better suited for specific tasks than others,” Nelson explained. “We thought this was the best way to engage them and illustrate how critical material properties are in engineering projects.”

The demonstration involved hanging an ice cream pail first from a pretzel rod and then from a Twizzler. Along the way, large washers were loaded in the pail. The food items were supported on each end by a wad of Play-Doh.

Discussion focused on how strong each material was by examining how many washers each material could hold; what variables could be adjusted so the food could hold more weight, like having a shorter span or using more Play-Doh support on the ends; and how each material reacted to a load by bending, cracking or stretching before breaking and dropping the load.

Lockwood led one group through a demonstration of how arches allow a suspension bridge to carry the weight of hundreds of motor vehicles with little or no apparent support using little more than eggshells.

She explained to the participants how arches, even those of egg shells, are strong because they exert horizontal, as well as vertical, forces to resist the pressure of heavy loads.

“I was in the students’ shoes about 10 years ago,” Lockwood said. “I had participated in a similar opportunity as a senior in high school.”

Lockwood talked to the young women about the relationship of drafting and design to engineering.

“I think students sometimes don’t realize the wide variety of trades out there,” she said. “This was an opportunity to reach out and demonstrate to students that they can use their talents in a practical way in the industry.”

One young woman approached Lockwood and told her, “My parents told me that I could not draw for a living and now I can tell them, ‘Yes I can! I can be a drafter.’”

“My heart totally melted,” Lockwood said. “I had hoped to touch these young women’s minds and futures, but to actually hear that I did to at least one young lady was the most amazing feeling.

“Participating in e-Girls was such a positive experience for me,” said Nelson who went on to explain that her original plan to teach mathematics changed after her mother suggested she go into engineering.

“The truth is, I didn’t have the slightest idea what ‘engineering’ meant,” she admitted. “I never even heard the term ‘civil engineering’ until I was a senior in high school. So, my lack of interest was really just a lack of familiarity.”

“Given my background, I was thrilled to see a program like e-Girls teaching girls what engineers do and showing them the variety of math and science careers available to them,” Nelson said.

Other facilitated activities at the e-Girls workshop included Welding, Tie Dye Chromatography, Planetary Lander, Incredible Edible Aquifer, The Physics of Rock Climbing, Virtual Worlds and Digi-Bling.

Published 7-23-2010