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Smashing Stereotypes

Smashing StereotypesCalling themselves "Nerd Girls," a group of female engineers at Tufts are out to prove that science isn't just for men anymore.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.23.02] They're nerd girls, and they're proud of it. Focused on throwing all of the stereotypes about girls and science out the window, a group of female engineers at Tufts has built a solar-powered car to help them travel the East coast spreading the message that science isn't just for men any more.

Most people - Tufts engineering professor Karen Panetta told Newsweek - "perceive the women who go into [engineering] as homely, dateless personalities who like to sit in closets and figure math equations out."

But that stereotype couldn't be further from the truth, Panetta said in a story that appeared in Newsweek Magazine's annual college guide.

To prove her point, the Tufts professor gathered a group of female engineering students and started a unique program she called "Nerd Girls."

"The girls, a team of female engineers with diverse backgrounds and interests, are building a solar car and plan to drive it down the East Coast, stopping at universities along the way to lecture about solar energy," reported Mass High Tech. "The goal behind their efforts is to attract girls and women to engineering and science careers."

For the five "Nerd Girls" - Panetta's program has provided them with a meaningful experience.

"We are all so excited about everything, and we are moving very quickly," project leader Larisa Schelkin told Mass High Tech.

Working on the solar car allows the women to combine their engineering skills with their personal interests.

"I thought this was a great opportunity to build an electric car and make the environment better," Katie Nordstrom said in a Tufts TV documentary about the program.

Certainly, the Nerd Girls are changing the environment in traditionally male-dominated engineering programs.

"My friends say 'Wow, you have that many girls there?'' Beibhinn O'donoghue told The Boston Globe. "I realize I am lucky, being at Tufts."

According to the Globe, women represent just 20 percent of engineering students nationwide. And women account for just six percent of the nation's engineering faculty.

But at universities like Tufts, where deans and faculty have been working together to attract more female students - the numbers are a lot more encouraging.

Over 33 percent of engineering students are women at Tufts, reported the Globe, and more than 20 percent of the engineering professors are female (compared with 10 percent at nearby MIT).

Some of Tufts' success can be attributed to a set of unique classes added to the first-year curriculum to create a hands-on learning environment for students, which appeals to female engineers.

"[In traditional programs] you don't get to see engineering your first year. You see math and science," Ioannis Miaoulis - dean of Tufts' School of Engineering - told the Globe.

But at Tufts, students get an opportunity to use their engineering skills to solve real life challenges.

"There's a course in the design and performance of musical instruments, with a concert at the end of the semester," reported the Globe. "And one in 'gourmet engineering,' where students cook and work equations in a test kitchen."

Tufts has another advantage over other engineering programs - its School of Arts and Sciences.

"Women would like to have the option of learning something in the arts or humanities also," Tufts' Kim Knox - the associate dean of engineering - told the Globe. "Many women look at institutions that are very techie, and the reason they don't want to go there is because they don't want to be narrowed."

It also helps to have some good role models to look up to.

"If I show them my girls, who are talented and beautiful, with guys going crazy for them, they're not going to see nerds," Panetta told the Globe. "They'll be wannabes."

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