‘Locking in’ their interest
Union summer program aims to foster new female engineers
WATERFORD Twenty high school girls who want to be engineers learned firsthand Monday how a canal locking system works at Erie Canal Lock No. 2.
The would-be engineers from eight states are in their second week of Union College’s “Educating Girls For Engineering” summer workshop.
Steven Sweeney, a civil engineer with the state Canal Corp., gave the high school juniors and seniors a tour of Lock No. 2 in Waterford, including a demonstration of how the lock is filled with water, opened and closed.
The students asked questions about how the lock motors and mechanisms worked and how the lock system functions.
Sharon Lin, going into her senior year at Guilderland High School, said she became interested in engineering when she took a physics course earlier this year. The course sparked her interest in biomedical engineering.
Lin is considering engineering programs at Tufts University in Boston, Columbia University and Union College.
The tour of the canal is part of a two-week experience during which the students are challenged to use the design and problem-solving skills developed during the program to create communication tools and toys for disabled children, which is this year’s theme.
For example, Lin and her four-student work group are designing a device for a 5-year-old boy with cerebral palsy.
“His parents want him to use his right arm more,” Lin said. She said her team has designed a magnetized glove that encourages the boy to use his right hand and arm.
“Our deadline is Friday,” Lin said. “I hope we can be done by then.”
Some of the students also design and make “talk boxes,” devices intended to assist children who cannot verbally communicate on their own.
The EDGE program is taught by Union College faculty members and high school teachers. The students apply for the program and pay $1,000 each, a price that includes a room at Union College, meals, field trip expenses, supplies and materials. To be eligible, the students must write an essay and submit an academic transcript and letters of recommendation. The program is in its ninth year.
“The focus is to introduce them to different kinds of engineering,” said Jenny Moon Lippmann, EDGE coordinator at Union College.
Another aspect of EDGE is for the students to meet a practicing female engineer. On Monday the students met Dianne Denniston, an engineer with the Thruway Authority’s canal design bureau. Denniston explained how she became interested in engineering.
The students asked Denniston why she chose civil engineering, and she said this area of engineering interested her more than, say, electrical engineering. She specializes in geotechnical work for the Thruway Authority.
They asked Denniston where she went to school: SUNY Oneonta and North Carolina State in Raleigh for engineering.
The students also visited the Brookfield Power hydroelectric facility in Cohoes on Monday as part of the Waterford-Cohoes field trip.
Women constitute 51 percent of the American population and 46 percent of the nation’s labor force but only 10 percent of today’s practicing engineers, according to a statement about the EDGE summer workshop.
Michele Famoso, an engineering design teacher with EDGE, said Monday was the first time the students visited the state canal locking system. She said the EDGE coordinators like to show the students interesting aspects of the Capital Region that can be associated with engineering concepts, like the locking system and the hydroelectric project.