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Stanford Report, May 6, 1998

Children experiment with science: 5/6/98

Engineering the future: Women’s group introduces children to joys of science


Last Saturday, 120 fourth- and fifth-grade students examined cells from their own cheeks under a microscope, saw how pollution in water can spread, and learned how to make silly putty.

The occasion was the third annual Exploring New Worlds program sponsored by the Stanford Society of Women Engineers. The event is designed to give young children a firsthand glimpse of what it is like to be a geologist, a geneticist or an electrical engineer.

"The philosophy is to expose elementary-school children to science and engineering, especially [children] who are underrepresented in those fields, including certain ethnicities and girls," said Tomtor Varutbangkul, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering and a co-chair of the event. "The program provides them with a fun introduction to these areas. We hope that by letting them see what science and engineering are really like, we'll encourage them to pursue these areas," she said.

The approach has proven so successful that it has received a special award from the National Society of Women Engineers.

This year, Stanford professors and students led 17 workshops that introduced the children to a broad range of scientific subjects.

In one workshop, children built towers for gummy bears to live in. "I want to give you some sense about what engineering is and what design is," Sheri Sheppard, associate professor of mechanical engineering, told the children. They designed skyscrapers for Bear Valley Community, using as building materials only tape and playing cards. The gummy bears needed towers capable of withstanding gusty winds provided by a hairdryer.

The children worked in pairs and threesomes to make 14-inch-tall towers. Several of the skyscrapers fell over under the strong wind, but with changes to the design, most children succeeded in building a tower that met the gummy bears' requirements. And unlike real engineers, the children got to eat their clients.

After attending a workshop on the red planet, Jose Ortiz, a 10-year-old student at Hoover School in Redwood City, explained that he dreams of being an engineer on the first manned flight to Mars. "I also would like to build a spaceship when I'm older," he said.

In his favorite workshop, Amit Gupta watched sea urchin fertilization and took photographs of fertilized eggs. "Under the microscope, we saw it fertilizing. It was so cool," said the 11-year-old from Chadbourne School in Fremont.

"When I grow up, I want to live here at Stanford," said Nidia Ceja, 10, a student at Hoover. She said she wants to become a scientist "so [I] can learn more."

"I want to be a computer engineer," said Kashana Bridgeford, a 10-year-old from Fair Oaks School in Redwood City. "Today I worked with a joystick to move a robot."

Susan Kim, president of the Stanford chapter of the Society of Women Engineers and a senior majoring in chemical engineering, said, "If they're excited about science and engineering before junior high school, they can get really into their classes."

Although the chapter sent invitations to local schools with high minority attendance, its goal was to get as many children as possible excited about science. The program was open to all fourth- and fifth-graders interested in attending.

"I'm wishing that when I was young, I had something like this," Kim said. The children "are getting really excited. They're learning things that they don't really get in their classes."

According to Kim, the program's objective is not only to interest children in science and engineering by using hands-on activities, but also to help them develop critical thinking and teamwork skills.

In the afternoon, the children used these skills when they competed for prizes in an engineering assignment. Teams of four built a tool to scoop up and carry various items (including a tissue, a Ping-Pong ball, a Slinky and a pair of sunglasses) from one box into another six feet away. The teams built their tools from newspapers, masking tape, paper plates, paper cups, string, paper clips and straws.

The chapter presented awards to the teams that moved the most items in two minutes, as well as those who built the longest and best-looking tools, and the group that used the least materials in its design.

According to Su-Wen Ueng, a sophomore in mechanical engineering and a co-chair of Exploring New Worlds, "Some groups had really ingenious designs with two ends of the tool that they could use" to pick up objects of different sizes and shapes. One group built a movable lever onto the lip of their shovel-like tool. "Some kids came out with great designs that we didn't expect," she said.

Co-chair Varutbangkul was similarly impressed. "You can see these kids have the potential to really pursue an area in engineering because engineering requires creativity." SR

Lila Guterman is an intern at Stanford News Service.