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Welcome to NERD Girls at Tufts University!
"The Nerd Girls project takes an in depth and intimate look at women in engineering. It highlights their diverse talents and demonstrates their ability to work as a team striving to accomplish a challenging, but doable engineering project." -Dr. Karen Panetta
The engineering team task for the "Nerd Girls" will be to build a solar car. Tufts University has female engineers who have danced in the Nutcracker ballet, sang at the Apollo Theater, are award-winning pianists, and nationally ranked athletes.
The mission of this program is to show a wide audience of young women and young men how successful these students are as they work together to design and construct an engineering system. The project will showcase the young women's talents, diverse backgrounds and engineering skills. The team will build an energy efficient automobile and will drive it down the East coast, visiting local communities along the way and sharing their experiences with K-12 educators and students. As well, they will interact with professional women engineers who will consult on the project. See the related article below!
Calling themselves "Nerd Girls," a group of female engineers at Tufts are out to prove that science isn't just for men anymore.
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.23.02] -- They're nerd girls, and they're proud of it. Focused on throwing all of the stereotypes about girls and science out the window, a group of female engineers at Tufts has built a solar powered car to help them travel the East coast spreading the message that science isn't just for men any more.
Most people - Tufts engineering professor Karen Panetta told Newsweek - "perceive the women who go into [engineering] as homely, dateless personalities who like to sit in closets and figure math equations out." But that stereotype couldn't be further from the truth, Panetta said in a story that appeared in Newsweek Magazine's annual college guide.
To prove her point, the Tufts professor gathered a group of female engineering students and started a unique program she called "Nerd Girls." "The girls, a team of female engineers with diverse backgrounds and interests, are building a solar car and plan to drive it down the East Coast, stopping at universities along the way to lecture about solar energy," reported Mass High Tech. "The goal behind their efforts is to attract girls and women to engineering and science careers."
For the five "Nerd Girls" - Panetta's program has provided them with a meaningful experience. "We are all so excited about everything, and we are moving very quickly," project leader Larisa Schelkin told Mass High Tech. Working on the solar car allows the women to combine their engineering skills with their personal interests. "I thought this was a great opportunity to build an electric car and make the environment better," Katie Nordstrom said in a Tufts TV documentary about the program.
Certainly, the Nerd Girls are changing the environment in traditionally male-dominated engineering programs. "My friends say 'Wow, you have that many girls there?'' Beibhinn O'donoghue told The Boston Globe. "I realize I am lucky, being at Tufts."
According to the Globe, women represent just 20 percent of engineering students nationwide. And women account for just six percent of the nation's engineering faculty.
But at universities like Tufts, where deans and faculty have been working together to attract more female students - the numbers are a lot more encouraging. Over 33 percent of engineering students are women at Tufts, reported the Globe, and more than 20 percent of the engineering professors are female (compared with 10 percent at nearby MIT).
Some of Tufts' success can be attributed to a set of unique classes added to the first-year curriculum to create a hands-on learning environment for students, which appeals to female engineers. "[In traditional programs] you don't get to see engineering your first year. You see math and science," Ioannis Miaoulis - dean of Tufts' School of Engineering - told the Globe.
But at Tufts, students get an opportunity to use their engineering skills to solve real life challenges. "There's a course in the design and performance of musical instruments, with a concert at the end of the semester," reported the Globe. "And one in 'gourmet engineering,' where students cook and work equations in a test kitchen."
Tufts has another advantage over other engineering programs - its School of Arts and Sciences. "Women would like to have the option of learning something in the arts or humanities also," Tufts' Kim Knox - the associate dean of engineering - told the Globe. "Many women look at institutions that are very techie, and the reason they don't want to go there is because they don't want to be narrowed." It also helps to have some good role models to look up to. "If I show them my girls, who are talented and beautiful, with guys going crazy for them, they're not going to see nerds," Panetta told the Globe. "They'll be wannabes."
Reprint from Tufts E-News 3/6/08
NERDs Getting Ready
to Rev Up Solar Engine
Reaching around the world and Mass High Tech: The Journal of New England Technology - by Patricia Resende
They don't carry pocket protectors and they don't have tape holding their glasses together, but they are nerds. Meet a Tufts engineering team who have dubbed themselves Nerd Girls. The girls, a team of female engineers (pictured at left) with diverse backgrounds and interests, are building a solar car and plan to drive it down the East Coast, stopping at universities along the way to lecture about solar energy.
The goal behind their efforts is to attract girls and women to engineering and science careers. According to the Nerd Girls, being a female engineer often comes with the stigma of being a geek and lacking social skills or non-technical hobbies. The group of Tufts women, some of whom have danced in the Nutcracker and have sung at the Apollo Theatre, want to change that stigma. "We are all so excited about everything, and we are moving very quickly," said project leader Larisa Schelkin.
The idea behind creating such a project came from Karen Panetta, a professor in Tuft's electrical engineering and computer science department. "I really thought about this three or four years ago," Panetta said. "I was watching TV and noticed the popular TV shows that teens watch, such as 'Real World,' 'Popstars' and 'American Idol,' and they promote that you have to be the prettiest, most talented and perfect." Panetta said she felt that it also sent a message that you have to be good looking - "and that killed me."
To Panetta, that wasn't a realistic message to send to teens. "The way to be successful for anyone is through education," she added. Panetta said the idea to form Nerd Girls came after her female students commented about their involvement in tennis, ballroom dancing and theatre.
So the professor pondered over an idea for a documentary that would include female engineers who have an engineering task at hand. "The Real World sponsors controversy, and there is no common goal or theme or milestone," she said. And that's not what she wanted for Nerd Girls.
Panetta decided on building a solar car because she herself had no experience in solar energy and she didn't want the girls to feel intimidated. "The intimidation factor is horrendous, and I wanted them to see that I didn't know everything either," she said.
A second reason, she says, was because of a comment made by the dean of students at Tufts. The Dean said: "Our youth learn more about volcanoes than they learn about what they see every day - automobiles."
Panetta recruited the girls and got the ball rolling. The team of eight women started the project in March and practiced building a car using materials donated by the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. "The training car is one of the best things that has happened with the project," said Stephanie Chin, a senior engineering student and ballroom dancer at Tufts. "With anything in engineering you have to start somewhere and it's our template. You always have something that has been done before and build off of it."
Already the team members have put their skills to work and are changing the design of the car. "Safety was a big issue," Chin said. "Getting inside the car is very difficult with the car we have right now - the battery box and motor are right behind you so it's very hard." Katie Nordstrom, a computer engineering student at Tufts, said she joined the team because she wanted to do something where she can help people. Nordstrom and a few other members of the team are featured in a video clip on their Web site explaining the project. Tufts TV is creating a documentary about the project and hopes to air it nationally. "I thought this was a great opportunity to build an electric car and make this environment better," Nordstrom says in the video.
Jennifer Witken, also a Nerd and Tufts student, said the project gives the women a chance to "show our ability as engineers" and "our concern for a clean environment." With phase one of the project under way, Schelkin said she has been busy promoting and planning the project while still taking time to work on the car. Phase two, she says, will be building a "brand new car from scratch."
The road trip in the new solar car will take them from Medford to Orlando during Spring Break. Now all they need is additional support and donations. Last week the team received $10,000 from M/A-Com Inc., a division of Tyco Electronics. The Nerd Girls have also submitted a proposal to the Society of Women Engineers Boston and presented their project at the Society of Women Engineers New England Conference last spring. For more information on the project, go to http://nerdgirls.eecs.tufts.edu/.
Visit the Nerd Girls Website: http://www.nerdgirls.org/