News Release

Engineering SISTERS

UC San Diego students Andia Pebdani (left) and Katie Huang, lead a session of the SISTERS outreach program. 

San Diego, CA, February 20, 2015 -- How do you build the perfect water filter? With cotton balls or coffee filters? How about sand? And how about decorations: feathers or duct tape? These were the questions groups of girls energetically debated on a warm Thursday afternoon in December at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School in Encinitas. 

It was all part of a girls-only after school program led by undergraduate students at the University of California, San Diego, and funded by a three-year $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The project is called SISTERS, short for Sustaining Interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research in Society, and it reaches more than 130 girls in 5th- and 6th grade at four Encinitas elementary schools, with anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the students live below the poverty line. 

Girls build a water filter from various materials layered in a water bottle. 

“We want this program to make a profound and lasting difference in these girls’ lives,” said Mandy Bratton, SISTERS’ principal investigator.  “We hope the engaging curriculum and the interaction with female scientists, engineers and undergraduates will ignite their interest in careers in science and engineering in which women continue to be underrepresented.”

On this particular Thursday afternoon, girls were building water filters to purify a concoction of tea, cornstarch and oil. Their devices were made from empty soda bottles filled with a wide range of materials, including felt, coffee filters, wire and colorful pebbles. The girls were getting help from Encinitas sixth-grade teacher Ilse Escobedo and UC San Diego students Andia Pebdani, a senior and environmental systems major, and Katie Huang, a third-year computer science major. 

Time to test the water filters.

“Hopefully, we’ll be bringing more girls to STEM,” Huang said. A woman in computer science, she works in a heavily male-dominated field--a fact that she’s hoping to change. 

SISTERS emerged from a close collaboration between the Jacobs School’s Global TIES – Teams in Engineering Service—program, which Bratton directs, and the Encinitas Union School District. Global TIES students led by Jan Kleissl, an associate professor of environmental engineering, taught science and engineering lessons in the school district from 2009 to 2014. Kleissl is the co-principal investigator of SISTERS and oversees the program’s curriculum. 

Waiting to see if the water comes out clean. 

Encinitas Union expects the program to be transformational for students, said Nancy Dianna Jones, the district’s administrator of support services. “We want them to be confident problem solvers who know how to work with others. We want them to love science,” she added. “We want them to have a desire to make a difference in their community and in the world.”

Girls in the program are getting the message. “Before I did the program, I didn’t like science so much,” said Megan Pusl, 10. “Now I like it a lot. It’s made science fun.” She wants to become a coder, after one of the program’s sessions focused on programming. 

Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering