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Combining math, science, girls
Future women engineers sought by MIT students

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Date published: 1/15/2008

by Hugh Muir

When Rita Truelove walked down the aisle of the Mountain View High School auditorium last week, accompanied by two young women from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was wearing her MIT sweatshirt.

A 23-year veteran physical sciences teacher in Spotsylvania and, for the past two years, the K-12 science coordinator for Stafford County schools, she was looking for future engineers. Female engineers. Thirty interested girls sat in the auditorium's front rows.

"These are my working clothes," she said. "With meetings like this, we are trying to help young women avoid thinking as stereotypes. We are trying to teach them that there are boundaries they can break through." She advises teachers of math and science classes in Stafford's 29 public schools.

Truelove pointed out that, happily, the men-to-women ratio of engineering students at the college level has changed drastically. "A generation ago," she said, "it was 90-10. Today, at MIT, it is 53-47."

Over the next two hours, the two women from MIT put a PowerPoint program on the big screen as part of their school's attempt to recruit women to become engineers. Alternating in their rapid-fire delivery were Laura Garrity, an aerospace engineer who graduated from the Cambridge, Mass., school last June and who now works for Microsoft in Seattle, and Nahathai Srivali, a native of Thailand, who came to this country five years ago and is a sophomore in chemical engineering at MIT. She will intern with Bayer in Germany next summer.

The two visitors were one of eight MIT student teams that are making recruiting trips throughout the United States during their January school break, talking to middle- and high-school students. Last week's visit to the Fredericksburg area included not only Mountain View High but also North Stafford High and Rodney Thompson Middle School. They also went to six middle schools in Spotsylvania County and one in King George County.

"I want more girls to get interested in engineering," said Garrity. "I wish there had been a presentation like this when I was in high school. As it turned out, my father, who is, yes, an aeronautical engineer, got me to go to MIT."

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Toward the conclusion of the MIT presentation on engineering at Mountain View last week the 30 girls present were given the following challenge. "With the materials provided, build a car that you can propel by breath only."

The teams were given: Two sheets of paper, four drinking straws, four Life Savers, four paper clips, a roll of sticky tape, a pair of scissors. They were allowed 20 minutes.

What to do with what became quickly clear. The paper was to be folded to make the car body. The straws were to become the axles. The Life Savers were to be the wheels. The paper clips and the tape were to hold it all together.

There were 12 cars built. Each was then lined up, one at a time, at a starting marker on the stage floor and a team member blew on it. For one reason or another, most of the cars went two or three feet. The "winner"--built by the team of Noel Lawn, 15, a freshman; Ali Storey, 16, a junior; Britney Mollison, 17, a junior; and Lauren Burke, 14, a freshman--was a flat, square model with a rear vertical panel. By measurement, it traveled 98 inches.

It was agreed that the car was a success not because of lung power. It was because of successful engineering.

--Hugh Muir