By Charly Markwart Princeton Times 2 July 2009
PRINCETON, WV — For 23 local young ladies, the door to a whole new world was opened last week.
And, for those participants in Mercer County Schools’ sixth annual Women-Tech Academy, that door might just lead to a career in the field of engineering.
“This camp is to introduce high school girls to the careers that are available in the field, because there is a shortage of young ladies going into engineering,” explained Don Bury, professor of architectural engineering at Bluefield State College, which collaborates with the county school system to coordinate the weeklong day camp. “This allows them to do some research and find out what careers in this field are all about, and to realize that they might have the opportunity to go into those fields.”
The academy, hosted this year June 22-26 at the Mercer County Technical Education Center, has become a popular annual summer educational offering, open to any female student heading into grades nine through 12. Throughout this year’s camp, a variety of hands-on experiments, lecture opportunities and field outings gave participants a rare close-up view into the world of engineering.
“I think the students have had a lot of fun this week doing things they probably wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise,” said Bury. “We try to pick some activities that are fun but that build some skills at the same time. They’ve been putting things together and understanding the engineering and physics behind these things that we’re doing.”
Those activities included building mechanical robots, designing an aquarium, and constructing water-powered rockets, which were later launched on the Princeton Senior High School football field.
“The ladies tried to build their rockets to go as high in the air as they could,” said Bury. “It taught them about the physics of pressure and aerodynamics, because they had a lot of design decisions that affected how high their rocket would fly, from the shape of the nose to the amount of water they put in the bottle. Then, we brought them out to the field, pumped them up with a tire pump, let the girls pull the string, let go and see whose went the furthest. We’ve seen them go 60, 80, and even 100 feet up today.”
Michelle Blankenship, who will begin the ninth grade in the fall, listed the bottle rocket experiment as one of her favorites in a week full of educational activities.
“This showed me that building rockets can be really fun,” she said. “We just used this 20 ounce pop bottle, glued wings and a cone on it, and then we got to choose whether we used a parachute model or a ping pong ball. We wanted to see whose would go the highest, and I was really surprised at how high mine flew. I think it was pretty much a success.”
In addition to skill-building experiments, the academy also exposed student participants to the professional side of engineering, with visiting female lecturers from within the field. By sharing their stories of struggle and success, Bury says, those women provided some much-needed inspiration to the young Mercer County students taking part in the camp.
“Statistics have shown that ladies do as well, and in many cases better than guys in science and math, but it’s just one of those things where going into the engineering fields hasn’t been promoted to females as well as it could have been,” he said. “But, the career opportunities in the engineering field are going to continue to go up as the baby boomers retire, and in order to fill that need for engineers in the country, we need to let these young ladies know that they can do this.”
This year’s academy, though, wasn’t all serious, and it wasn’t only about education. Designed to pique female students’ interest in engineering by showing them the exciting and stimulating aspects of the field, the camp consisted of several opportunities for fun, including a week-culminating field trip to the Aquarium of the Smokies, in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
“I think this whole week has definitely excited the students; you can see the enthusiasm in their eyes just out here launching rockets and with everything else they’ve done,” said the MCTEC’s Linda Cox. “This is inspiring female students to understand what the field of engineering is all about, so, if they liked launching rockets today, they’ll know to look at the field for the future. That’s been the whole goal of the academy for years, to get female students from Mercer County Schools to pursue careers in engineering.”
Bury says that goal has already begun to be seen through to fruition in the relatively short history of the Women-Tech program, which, in addition to the summer academy hosts similar quarterly engineering-related activities for female students.
“The academy has continued to grow; we’re at capacity now and we actually had to turn girls away, this year,” he said. “And, as far as leading female students into careers in engineering, we’ve had three former academy participants come over to BSC and join our engineering program, and there are at least three others who have gone into engineering elsewhere. I think that shows that we are accomplishing our goal with this program.”
And, for the students, the Women-Tech Academy might be achieving an even more important goal than that of bringing women into the field of engineering. That goal, according to PSHS junior Alee Swanner, has to do with self-confidence.
“I was kind of interested in engineering, before, but I really enjoyed this, and it inspired me to be more interested,” she said. “There is just a lack of education to females about getting into engineering, but we are just as capable, if not more, than men. This camp gave us a lot of statistics and numbers about that, and it gave us more ammunition to understand all that we are capable of.”
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