Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day: A Fun Chance to Promote Your Organization

“A compendium of learning from 2014–2019 “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” festivities on the University of Texas at Austin Campus by the Greater Austin Chapter of EWB-USA.”

Introduction

February 22nd, 2020, and at about the same time every year, there is an international celebration called “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” (http://www.discovere.org/our-programs/girl-day) as part of Engineering Week. (Sometimes in context this is shortened to “Girl Day”, but I prefer not to call it that unless the engineering context is well-understood.)

This is a truly global event; in the US it is celebrated by NASA. The University of Texas at Austin’s (UT) Girl Day, hosts about 8,000 elementary-school girls and their families for an afternoon of fun and education.

Engineers Without Borders USA has a natural fit into Introduce a Girl to Engineering day: we have great stories that explain and motivate engineering to youngsters. We have interesting hands-on water and power displays. Importantly, 15 years from now we need as many women engineers as possible. Even more importantly, we have learned that it is a refreshing delight to teach and inspire young people about what we do.

Since at least 2014, the Greater Austin Chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) has actively participation in UT’s Girl Day by staffing a table with various hands-on activities. In this time we have learned a number of things that have allowed us to provide a positive experience to hundreds of eager young people each day. This article explains what we do and how your own organization or other EWB-USA chapter might do the same.

How we Do It

Any organization can do something on their own for Girl Day (see: http://www.discovere.org/our-programs/girl-day).

However, if you are a student organization or are associated with a University or other organization that is already celebrating Girl Day, the organizational and promotional work is done for you, and you can synergize with that event rather than creating your own. The Greater Austin Chapter is lucky, in that although not associated with UT, we are close by, and have been able to participate in the 8,000 youngster, 150-organization organized by UT.

We try to make as many hands-on exhibits for the young ladies as possible. We also try to inform (and recruit) parents at this time, but we never let that get in the way of making a nice experience for the youth participants. The more concrete and hands-on you can make your table, the better. For some organizations, this would require concerted story-telling; we are lucky in that we have worked on some projects that are very hands-on.

Stations

Over time, we have developed a number of “stations“ ”with particular themes, though not all are used each year. For your first Girl Day table, you might want to focus on one or two activities so your group can become more familiar with your local event and resources and focus on hosting successful activities.

“Story of an Engineer”

An introduction to engineering and EWB-USA from a young girl’s perspective, generally without a hands-on activity. The station can also has pictures of work on your Chapter’s community projects — ours were Ancash, Peru and Chacaya, Guatemala.

“Solar Power Station”

We have a single (large) 170-watt solar panel connected to a solar charger and a small (sealed) 12V lead-acid battery. We use this to drive a fan, which demonstrates the solar power visually. Many girls and their parents ask very sophisticated questions about this station. It is in fact a chance to mention quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein. Einstein was the first to explain the frequency cutoff of the photoeletric effect, which is one of the easiest to demonstrate phenomena and can only be explained by quantum mechanics.

“Petrifilm Inoculation”

Our chapter has specialized in measuring bacterial water quality through the use of Petrifilms, one of several techniques used by EWB-USA engineers worldwide. Children love using a transfer pipette to transfer one milliliter of dirty water to the top of a petrifilm. The girls are allowed to take them home, where normally visible bacterial colonies will be seen within 72 hours, even without incubation. This is a good opportunity to explain water issues. A major challenge is having enough petrifilms. Last year 3M Corporation donated 200 Petrifilms for this purpose, every single one of which was inoculated and sent home with a child; we would like to publicly thank 3M for this. Small baggies to contain the Petrifilm until they get home may be a good idea. Be sure to collect water from a ditch or pond to make sure some bacteria grows.

“Soil Moisture”

We have the soil-moisture measuring instrument made by Mr. Anjan Contractor. This requires having two flower pots, with soil of different moisture levels. It provides yet another thing the children can do with their hands. It introduces the concept of measurement and instrumentation to the kids.

“The Armadillo”

Here we display the Armadillo petrifilm incubator and explain its function. This does not hold the attention of kids for very long, but demonstrates that we (and someday, they) are capable of invention and practical science.

“Arduino Programming”

A popular draw, although not typical of most EWB-USA projects, is to allow the girls to do a tiny bit of computer programming. To do this, we use an Arduino Esplora microcontroller, attached to a laptop. It is incontrovertible that at a certain age, having a computer print out “Nina is cool!” is awesome, and it is doubly awesome if your name is Nina.

This station allows children to do a smidgen of simple programming by typing their very own name into the program. Then using a slider on an Arduino Esplora, the child can slowly, and magically, one letter at a time, reveal the words “Nina is cool!”. (Sample code is given in Appendix A). This requires a small amount of training for our instructors who help the children. A challenge is that uploading to the Arduino is sometimes unreliable, and sufficient computer battery power is required. Furthermore, only one child at a time can do this, though often three or four are clustered around. It is a great, though exhausting, joy to provide this experience to 50 girls in 6 hours.

“Sawyer Water Filter (Future Idea)”

The Sawyer water filter, although not useful at the community scale, can make a valuable demonstration about water quality. To powerfully demonstrate the sub-micron water filter, find a substance that will be completely filtered out which is visibly change color, such as coffee or beet juice. The filter removes blue food coloring, but not perfectly.

“Sand Filter”

In the past we have had a demonstration of a sand filter to filter water. This requires some careful preparation, but it has the advantage of being sensual and messy.

Tips and Tricks

  • At a large event, signage is very helpful. Home-made signs are fine, but you have to be prepared to secure them against wind in outside settings.
  • Flyers for parents to read later is a great recruitment tool which doesn’t interfere with the children’s experience.
  • In a long event with hundreds of girls at your table, your volunteers will get tired! You may wish to provide your own refreshment.
  • Make sure you have adequate electrical power for any activities that require it.

A Checklist of Preparation

Although your organization’s circumstances will differ, here is our checklist of actions we do in preparation for our table at UT’s Girl Day. You may want to use this as a basis for your own planning.

  • Register in January as soon as the information is posted.
  • Communicate to your organization and get commitments for 12 volunteers in two shifts.
  • Plan the substations.
  • Plan transport of equipment to the table. Generally you can drive within 200 meters of the table, but some of our equipment (e.g., the solar panel) are bulky and best carried by two people, and there may not be parking available close by.
  • Try to get an electrical outlet for our computers, or have several computers with sufficient battery life.
  • Make sure each volunteer watches the safety video required by the Girl Day Organization.
  • Plan several reminders for each volunteer to improve participation.
  • Plan to have someone take lots of cute pictures!
  • Plan tear-down.
  • Collect and exchange phone numbers of critical personnel for on-the-spot communication.
  • Have organization flyers ready to give to parents.
  • Bring duct tape for securing things under windy conditions.
  • Bring string and cordage to attach our sign and secure other objects.
  • Be prepared for rain (generally covering will be provided by Girl Day.)
  • Encourage everyone to get and wear their free Girl-Day Volunteer T-Shirt to identify them as volunteers.
  • Girl Day often provide free pizza and their are food trucks available, but those with special dietary needs should bring their own food.
  • Make sure to bring the vinyl “EWB-USA Banner”, our “Tri-Fold”, and the vinyl “Story of an Engineer” banners.

Public Inventor. Founder of Public Invention. Co-founder of @18F. Presidential Innovation Fellow. Agilist. PhD Comp. Sci. Amateur mathematician.