Outreach inspires young women to consider engineering

Posted: March 6, 2014

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Professor Betty Lise Anderson, right, takes engineering to young women through her outreach efforts.
In grade school, teachers tell their students that the sky is the limit and that they have the capacity to change the world. One professor would argue that the sky isn’t the limit and that students can change the world around them, quite literally.

Betty Anderson, electrical and computer engineering, thinks that the world needs a diverse community of engineers. She now leads Engineering Outreach, a program in the College of Engineering focused on building interest in female and minority students in 78 schools, after-school camps and STEM clubs in and around Columbus.

“There are those who say we’re facing a shortage of engineers in the United States, so who’s going to fill those jobs? If only white males are filling them, then you’re missing more than half of the potential candidates,” Anderson said.

During an event, Anderson and her student volunteers teach children how to build their own projects, including motors, CD spectrometers, heart monitors and speakers.

“What I like about (the speakers) is that the kids get to keep them because it’s so cheap,” she said. “The two magnets are 10 cents apiece and the wire costs about 35 cents. The rest is just paper and cardboard.”

The speaker project is a favorite of Clayton Greenbaum’s, a fourth-year student in electrical and computer engineering and one of Anderson’s volunteers.

“I think anybody can make a speaker and make it well,” he said. “It’s like you’re teaching a piece of paper how to sing… it’s like magic.”

The Engineering Outreach program came into fruition in 2008 when Robert Lee, Anderson’s department chair, recognized the need for more women and minorities in engineering. Anderson was asked by Lee to be the outreach chair for the program in hopes of inspiring more children to take an interest in the engineering field.

“If you look at the numbers, right now I think electrical engineering is up to 12 percent women from 6 percent when I started this,” Anderson said, “and I think the percentage of African Americans are in that ballpark.”

These low numbers are consistent around the country for women and minorities in electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science. According to Anderson, chemical engineering has the most women in its practice, but the percentage is still less than 50 percent.

Edwin Lee, a graduate student studying electrical engineering, is an African American who has worked with Anderson on the program before.

“The kids are always really excited,” Lee said. “Every kid has a cell phone. So when you bring cardboard, wire, straw and glue and you make a speaker that you can actually hook up to your phone and play your music on it, there’s something really exciting about that.”

After five years, the Engineering Outreach program has worked with more than 7,000 students.

“I keep track,” Anderson said with a laugh.

Working with the students has proven to be “very satisfying” and a lot of fun for Anderson. Greenbaum agrees.

“When there are kids who don’t think their project is going to work and they don’t want to do it — all they want to do is quit,” he said. “But if you keep pushing them, eventually they’ll finish; it works and they smile. I think that’s really rewarding.”

Greenbaum believes that for him, Engineering Outreach is less about the politics and more about the kids. “I think it’s great to try to foster interest in minorities and females, but I just do it for any kid. It doesn’t really matter what race or gender they are,” he explained. “Kids are really fun and you never know what to expect.”

Article by Desiaire Rickman, onCampus