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Science and Girls: It's a Good Thing at NJIT

When NJIT's Suzanne quizzes quizzes the girls who arrive on campus every summer to study science as part of a program called FEMME,  she asks their opinion of engineers.


Mostly, Heyman says, the students agree that "engineers are nerds," that engineering is not a viable career choice for women, and that science is not something many of them are considering.


What a difference a few weeks of imaginative, exciting teaching can make, she says.


This year's class, 120 girls in grades four through eight, arrived on campus recently and will attend classes through August 7 as day students.


Most are either black or Hispanic and all are within commuting distance of Newark. Many come from low-income families.


But all are bright students who must get A's and B's in math and science and three letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors.


The girls are grouped by grade and spend the summer on one of five interest areas, environment, aerospace science, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, and biomedical engineering.


The faculty design kid-friendly experiments and learning exercises.


For instance, this year's chemical engineering class is learning what makes a polymer turn into "slime," the slippery, gooey plastic sold as a toy.  They learn how chemical reactions change polymers from slimy to hard, says Heyman.


Another class is learning engineering principles by building bridges out of match sticks.


Working in teams--like real engineers--and using a glue gun, the girls design then secure their structures. They will later test their model bridges by placing 10-lb bags of sand on them. Heyman predicts the girls will learn that using cross-braced toothpicks makes a stronger bridge than when the toothpicks are glued together at right angles.


"They come up with some amazing designs," she says.


But in addition to the specifics these girls will learn, the real achievement of FEMME is opening the students' eyes to the possibilities science, math, and engineering offer women.


Nationally, over 90 percent of the jobs in math and science are held by men, according to FEMME data.


Heyman believes that through programs like NJIT's that trend will start to change.


Already about half of FEMME's alumnae who have finished college have gone on to math or science careers, says Heyman.


No one expects that the program will make a scientist of every girl who enters, but Heyman believes FEMME works. It starts wih changing thinking, she says.


At the end of last year's session, the students were again polled on their attitudes toward math, science, and engineering.


To the question "Girls can be engineers, do you agree or disagree?", only 19 percent had said they agreed at the start of the program. By the end of the session, 38 percent said they agreed.