It’s a girl thing

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Young ladies taking part in “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” at A.J. Whittenberg Elementary watch their balloon rockets lift off from the launching pad. Young ladies taking part in “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” at A.J. Whittenberg Elementary watch their balloon rockets lift off from the launching pad.

Women engineers promote the field to young girls

They talked about nail polish, makeup and lip gloss. But the fourth-grade girls at A.J. Whittenberg Elementary who gathered in the school's library one morning last week weren't talking about the season's hottest colors, the new "in" thing or the best flavors offered in a stick to help them keep their lips moist.

They were talking engineering.

It was "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day," and local female engineers from GE, Fluor, Hubbell Lighting, Engineered Products and Greenville County were there to talk about what being an engineer is all about.

"Say it with me. Math, science and engineering – it's a girl thing," said Serita Acker, director of Clemson's Women in Science and Engineering program. "Many of the products girls use are made by men. Girls are smart and should be a part of the design teams as well."

Acker said that while females make up about 70 percent of the students on college campuses nationwide, they account for only 20 percent of the students who are studying engineering.

There are about 450,000 licensed engineers in the United States. About 10 percent of them are female.

Most of the female engineers who participated in the event at A.J. Whittenberg said they are used to being in the minority as far as their professions go – from their college classrooms to the workplace.

"To me, it is fun to break the stereotype," said Sandra Kolvich, a mechanical design engineer at GE. "We need to encourage more girls to go into engineering. They're encouraged to go into teaching or another field that uses math such as accounting, but not necessarily into engineering."

Kolvich said the shortage of female engineers isn't because of the lack of ability; it's the lack of exposure to the field.

Margaret Thomason, A.J. Whittenberg's principal, said when Whittenberg opened three years ago as the state's first elementary school with an engineering focus, she was asked if it would be an all-boys school. She said 45 percent of the school's students are girls.

Acker told the girls how chemical engineers work to make products such as nail polish, makeup and lip gloss safe; computer engineers help design electronic gadgets such as iPads and smartphones; and mechanical engineers help design the toys they play with.

Amie Martin, an engineer with Engineered Products, said the skills learned through STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – education will help students no matter what gender they are and which career field they decide to enter.

The skills necessary to succeed in engineering are transferable to other fields, Thomason said.

"Higher-order thinking skills are critically important no matter which field a student decides to go into," said Lynn Mann, the school's program director.

After breakfast, the students built and launched balloon rockets to put their science and engineering skills to work.