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Event Helps Girls Envision Career in Science and Engineering

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Ericka Senegar-Mitchell, a teacher at Serra High School (first from the left in the first row), Envision volunteers and students who are members of the Ladies of Science in the City club that Senegar-Mitchell directs. 

San Diego, Calif., Jan. 24, 2012 -- They built their own robots. They learned about augmented reality and cardiovascular engineering, among many other things. They got to play a real-life version of the popular game “Angry Birds.”

More than 100 girls from 33 middle and high schools around San Diego County and as far as Southwest Riverside County and Imperial County, took part in Envision, a student outreach event organized every year by the chapter of the Society of Women Engineers at the Jacobs school of Engineering at UC San Diego. The event took place Jan. 21.

Aimed at introducing young women to the myriad opportunities in engineering and computer science, the event boasts of a cohesive blend of laboratory tours, design projects, computer programming, guest lectures and mentorship by current UC San Diego engineering and computer science undergraduates. All this with a fun spirit, of course.

“Envision is just what is needed to distinguish between the perception and reality of women in science,” said Ericka Senegar-Mitchell, a science teacher at Serra High School, who was  named one of the San Diego County teachers of the year in 2011. She also emphasized that Envision makes girls realize that “potential is not lost due to gender.”

Senegar-Mitchell was there with students from the outreach program she directs, “Ladies of Science in the City.” Incidentally, she  is a nominee for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, which will be named next year by the White House.

Although the rain played spoilsport, the event attracted more than 100 participants, banking on the reputation it has built over the past two years. Revathy Sampath-Kumar, a third-year bioengineering student and the current president of SWE, said she was happy with the numbers and was glad to see a lot of returning students coming with their friends and siblings. One of the greater motivations for Sampath-Kumar to join SWE was to build a good community of friends with similar interests. And she said she believes Envision helps school girls do this too.

Students’ enthusiasm

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A student shows off the robot she built during Envision 2012, an outreach even organized by the Society of Women Engineers. 

By the end of the event, girls could be seen networking and already making plans to be back next year. The excitement hadn’t ebbed all day. Marissa Hepler, from Cathedral Catholic High School, was one of the first to complete the robot activity in her group. She said she believes Envision has made her more confident about her decision to study engineering. The ninth-grader, who looks up to her mother, a systems engineer, explained that Envision exposed her to numerous applications of engineering she was previously unaware of.

On the other side of the spectrum, an 11th-grader from Scripps Ranch High School, Sarah Douglas, has it all figured out. She excitingly drew a mental map during an interview: ‘Finish high school--study environmental engineering at university--get graduate degree in law--become an environmental law attorney.’ For her, Envision was about having fun with friends and getting to know all the ‘cool stuff’ happening at UC San Diego.

Indeed, Envision was an opportunity to visit the UC San Diego campus for all Envision participants, whether to enjoy the scenery or make up their minds about coming here for college. Gennie Miranda, assistant director at IDEA Student Center and advisor to SWE, mentioned that one of the goals of Envision was to introduce the girls to UC San Diego and all the scientific activities that the college is involved in. She believes that Envision shares one of the goals of the IDEA Student Center:  to stimulate interest among girls and under-represented communities in the field of science and engineering.

Other members of SWE, who worked as volunteers for the event, also seemed to have had a great time reliving their high school years with the students. Some of them said they gained a new perspective about Envision. Jeannine Delgado, a freshman studying nanoengineering, said she always liked science and was never pressured into doing something else. This made Envision a novel experience as she met girls who were struggling to decide what they wanted to do. Mostly, volunteers said they were just happy to talk to and share experiences with the students.

A full day with speakers, tours and activities

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High school and middle school students take notes during a lab tour. 

The event started at 9:30 a.m. with keynote speeches by Debra S. Roy, senior software quality engineer at L-3 Communications, San Diego, and Professor Tara Javidi from the Electrical and Computer Engineering department at the Jacobs School. Both speakers gave students insights into working in a male-dominated industry. They also talked about various career paths that engineering and computer science could lead to.

After the speeches, the students were divided into groups of 15 and walked to various laboratories around campus for presentations. “We have tried to have a tour of labs from almost every engineering and computer science department on campus,” explained  Brittany Lim, the SWE outreach officer and a member of the organization’s planning committee.  Labs on the students’ tour schedule ranged from the Functional Cardiovascular Engineering Laboratory in the Powell-Focht Bioengineering Hall to the National Geographic Laboratory in Calit2. After a couple of hours of absorbing information about new technologies, research and applications, the students were offered lunch. And lunch came with its own share of fun with presentations from different engineering organizations at the Jacobs School. To top it all off, students could try their hands at a real-life version of the  ‘Angry Birds’ game.

After lunch, students divided into two groups to rotate between a presentation by Qualcomm on Augmented Reality Software and a hands-on robot-building activity. Students were excited about the robot and chose to decorate their final products in many creative ways. The cuteness factor was a major consideration, they said. The students were also very impressed by the Qualcomm presentation once they realized what Augmented Reality could do. In this age of tablet devices and smartphones, they could easily visualize applications for the software.

The students then heard from Marie Struttman, Shop Floor Control and Finite Scheduling Tool Program Leader at Life Technologies, who talked about various real-world applications of engineering and computer science. The day came to an end with closing remarks from Sampath-Kumar, the SWE president, thanking all participants and supporters.

Envision 2012 was successful in its endeavour to expose young women to technological advancements in engineering and computer science, with some great stories from women working in the field. It helped women, from different walks of life, mingle and learn about each other. But more than anything, it was what SWE wanted it to be— a lot of fun.

Written by Abhinav Jha, an exchange student at the Jacobs School of Engineering. 

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Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899
ipatrin@ucsd.edu

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