Volume 4 No.2, Spring 2001

ISSN# 1523-9926

A Contemporary Pre-College Science and Engineering Program for Girls

Sohail Anwar
Division of Business and Engineering
The Pennsylvania State Penn State Altoona - Altoona College


This paper describes a pre-college science and engineering/engineering technology education program conducted every year at Penn State Altoona for middle school (7th and 8th grades) girls and their teachers. The objective of the program is to expose middle school girls to careers in science, engineering and engineering technology. Hands-on experimental investigations in the various disciplines of science and engineering are used to expose young girls to the importance of focusing on mathematics and science in their middle school years. In addition to providing a detailed description of the program, the paper analyzes the outcomes of this program. Recommendations for further improving the effectiveness of the program are also given. 



The various disciplines of science and engineering continue to show an under representation of females. Girls still do not enter, in large numbers, the field of engineering/engineering technology or other professions requiring a strong background in science and mathematics. Many girls still experience a considerable math anxiety and, therefore, choose not to continue the study of mathematics and science beyond the required high school courses [1]. Other reasons why a significant number of females do not pursue careers in engineering and engineering technology include lack of information, lack of encouragement, lack of opportunity, and lack of role models [2]. 

Another major problem that currently exists in the public schools in the United States is the lack of appropriate methods and tools which should be used to motivate students to explore careers in science and engineering/engineering technology [3]. In most of the schools, excellence in mathematics is regarded as a key to success in science, engineering, and engineering technology. Students are taught numerous mathematical concepts without teaching them how these concepts are put into application in the real world. Many math teachers are, unfortunately, unaware of how engineers and scientists use mathematics to solve real-world problems [4]. By infusing science and engineering problem solving concepts into mathematics curricula, students may be provided with a context for the material they are learning. Demonstrating how engineers and scientists use mathematics to solve real world problems would encourage students to continue their math and science studies. Such demonstrations would also motivate students to consider careers in science and engineering. The objective of the program described in this paper is to expose middle school girls to careers in science, engineering, and engineering technology. 


Institutional Background 

Penn State Altoona is one of 24 campuses making up the Pennsylvania State University system. It is the second largest of the 24 campuses and is a full-service residential campus located 42 miles from the research campus at University Park. Penn State Altoona became a four-year college within the Pennsylvania State University system in 1997 and offers baccalaureate degrees in eight majors. Penn State Altoona also offers associate (two-year) degrees in nine majors. Additionally, Penn State Altoona provides two years of course work for more than 160 State majors. More than 3800 students attended Penn State Altoona during Fall 1999. During the 1999-2000 academic year, 239 minority students attended Penn State Altoona.



the program described in this paper is designed to: 

1. Encourage girls to start thinking about pursuing non-traditional career paths for women. 

2. Expose girls to mathematics, science, and technical skills required to succeed in the workplace. 

3. Allow girls to develop team building and communication skills. 


Program Components 

The science and engineering program described in this paper consists of hands-on interactive classroom sessions involving exciting applications of mathematics, science and engineering/engineering technology. The key components of this one-day program are: 


Detailed Program Description 

A detailed description of each key component of this program is as follows: 

  1. Hands-On Interactive Classroom Session in Engineering Design 

Duration: 1.5 hours 

Skills Addressed:  Proficiency in math, sciences, and engineering; creative thinking; goal-setting; learning to learn; teamwork; information and technology related skills. 

Session Description:  This session concentrates on the application of mathematics (algebra) and graphing to strength of materials. Students are first exposed to the relation between force and stress, bringing out how variable relationships are modified to convert an extensive quantity (force) to an intensive quantity (stress). This leads to an introduction to how mechanical structures fail, including stress-strain curves, which exemplify concepts in two-variable graphing; stress concentration; and fatigue, which requires graphing of different variables (number of cycles vs. maximum cycle stress). The students then perform simple bending experiences on paper clips, counting the number of cycles until failure. The experiments produce a bar graph with a normal distribution, showing the effects of variation in testing and unit-to-unit manufacturing variations. 

  1. Hands-On Interactive Classroom Session in Science 
Duration: 1.5 hours 

Skills Addressed:  Creative thinking, experimental design, reverse engineering, learning to learn, teamwork, leadership, interpersonal skill, and communication skills. 

Session Description:  This hands-on classroom session involves exploration of the thinking styles and skills employed by scientists. Various characteristics of scientific thought and the scientific method are investigated through a series of mini-laboratory experiences. Skills such as sequencing, hypothesis formation, lateral thinking, inductive and deductive reasoning, and dealing with uncertainty are practiced through games, experiments and simulation exercises.

  1. Hands-On Interactive Classroom Session in Lasers/Fiber Optics 
Duration: 1.5 hours 

Skills Addressed: Proficiency in math, science, and engineering; creative thinking; goal setting; teamwork; leadership; interpersonal skills; and communication skills. 

Workshop Description:  This session consists of selected inquiry-based exercises in the topical areas of lasers and fiber optics. Lasers/fiber optics technology is one of the most rapidly growing fields in science and engineering. Lasers are used for a wide variety of industrial, medical, telecommunications, and entertainment applications. The hands-on activities in this session are developed around the following concepts:

(i) laser measurements

(ii) optical devices and measurements

(iii) laser system design.

  1. Panel Discussion 
Duration: 1 hour 

Skills Addressed:  Personal and career development information; communication skills; goal setting; and interpersonal skills. 

Panel Description:  As a portion of the program the students are provided with the opportunity to discuss concerns and issues of women who are considering entering the field of science or engineering. This opportunity is in the form of a panel discussion. The panel consists of a moderator and three to four panelists. The individual panelists represent current students and/or recent graduates in the fields of mathematics, engineering and natural sciences. Members from the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) usually participate in the discussion. The panel discussion topics include:

  1. Electronics Technology Showcase 
Duration: 45 minutes 

Skills Addressed:  Career information 

Session Description: Selected students enrolled in the Penn State associate degree electrical engineering technology program show real-life applications of digital systems and linear electronics by conducting hands-on demonstrations related to their final semester projects. Examples of such projects include digital controllers, mathematical calculations systems based on digital electronics, and audio amplifier systems. This showcase of real-world applications of electronics technology serves to increase female students’ interest in pursuing college level studies in science and engineering. 


Facilities for Conducting the Program 

The program described in this paper is held in the Advanced Technology Center Building. This building provides students with the opportunity to take engineering and technology courses in the two-story 15,000 square feet, state-of-the-art facility. The Advanced Technology Center Building contains a CAD/CAE laboratory, an electronics/communications laboratory, and a project laboratory to allow students to experience hands-on learning in a modern learning environment. 



Recruitment of Program Participants 

The above mentioned one-day program for middle school girls was conducted for the first time at Penn State Altoona in April 1999. Brochures were developed by the State Office of Continuing & Distance Education during fall 1998, for the recruitment of program participants. Program brochures were distributed to the career guidance counselors and the science teachers in the middle schools of a five-county area, which includes Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Huntingdon, and Somerset. The middle school science teachers and the career guidance counselors were requested to provide information regarding the program to female students in 7th and 8th grades. The science teachers and the career guidance counselors nominated female students for participation in the program. Based on the number of available (20-24) spaces in the program, students nominated by the school science teachers and the career guidance counselors were selected to participate in the program. If a parent, student, or teacher requested more information, he/she was encouraged to contact the Penn State Altoona Office of Continuing and Distance Education where a full-time staff member was available to answer any inquiry regarding the program. 

A total of 29 middle school girls and their 7 science teachers attended the program in April 1999. Two full-time faculty members in the Division of Business and Engineering and one full-time faculty member in the Division of Mathematics & Natural Sciences conducted the program. The faculty advisor and several student members of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) participated in the panel discussion, which turned out to be a very lively event. Program participants showed keen interest in the Electronics Technology Showcase where several students in the Electrical Engineering Technology Program of Penn State Altoona presented their projects. Projects included arithmetic calculators, opto-electronic circuits, and microprocessor based systems. The program was conducted again in May 2000, and May 2001. A total of 52 middle school girls and their 13 teachers from 13 junior high/middle schools participated in the program during the years 2000 and 2001. All the program participants described their learning experience as truly rewarding. 



Program Evaluation 

A questionnaire was administered to the program participants (middle school girls and their science teachers) at the end of the program during the years 1999, 2000, and 2001.  The participants’ responses to this questionnaire were very encouraging. Some of the responses were: 

  1. What did you like?

Hands-on experience

Using Internet

Using lasers and fiber optics

Problem solving



  1. What would you like to change about the class?
I don’t know of any changes

Add laser show

Add electronics

More time

  1. What did you like best about the teachers?
They were very helpful.

They explained everything.

The activities they gave.

They could always help us when we were confused.



Areas of Improvement 

The above mentioned science and engineering program for seventh and eighth grade girls and their teachers will be repeated.  Based on the participants’ written responses and verbal suggestions, the program will be enhanced in the topical area of lasers and fiber optics. In future programs, the session on lasers and fiber optics will include a demonstration of an automated laser light show system consisting of lasers, motors, power supplies, and mirrors. This demonstration will show program participants how to integrate lasers with electronics. In addition, display booths will be set up by local student chapters of various organizations such as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), and SWE (Society of Women Engineers). Program participants will be provided an opportunity to visit these booths and obtain information regarding engineering and science careers for women. 



A contemporary one-day science and engineering program for 7th and 8th grade girls and their teachers was described in the paper. The program is conducted at Penn State Altoona and consists of several hands-on interactive classroom sessions involving exciting applications of mathematics, science, and engineering. The program also includes a panel discussion and an electronics technology showcase. Female science and engineering students, recent female graduates of State science and engineering programs, and members of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) participate in the panel discussion. Development of formal evaluation procedures for this program is currently in process.



  1. Jahan, K., Sukumaran, B., Head, L.M., and Z.O. Keil. 2000. “AWE: An Outreach Workshop for Middle School Girls.” ASEE 2000 Annual Conference Proceedings. CD ROM publication (session 1692). 

  2. Wilson, S.S. 2000. “Developing a Plan for Recruiting and Retraining Women and Minorities in Engineering Technology at Western Kentucky University.” ASEE 2000 Annual Conference Proceedings. CD ROM publication (session 2547).

  3. Anwar, S. 1998.  "A Contemporary Science and Engineering Education Program for 8th and 9th Grade Students". Proceedings: FIE Annual Conference 1998, 28th Annual Conference. 3:1173-1177.

  4. Mowzoon, M.M., White, M.A., Blaisdell, S.L. and M.R. Anderson-Rowland. 1999. “WISE INVESTMENTS: A yearlong pilot program introducing engineering to teachers and counselors.” ASEE 1999 Annual Conference Proceedings. CD ROM publication (session 1392).

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