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The Exciting Side Of Engineering

The Exciting Side Of EngineeringThrough a variety of community projects and outreach activities, Nerds Girls—a group of engineering students at Tufts—is creating excitement about engineering.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.17.07] What do building a solar racing car, powering a lighthouse and developing software to train helper monkeys for quadriplegics have in common? For the engineering students of Tufts’ Nerd Girls, they are all ways to make a difference in the community and demonstrate the thrill of engineering

This is what Tufts’Dr. Karen Panetta had in mind when she founded the group eight years ago. “The whole idea came when I had well-rounded girls in my class,” Panetta told PRISM, a publication of the American Society for Engineering Education, about the creation of Nerd Girls. The associate professor of electrical and computer engineering wanted “to help dispel the myth that engineers are single-minded, anti-social types,” according to PRISM.

The past and present members of Nerd Girls, including biomedical, computer, mechanical and electrical engineers, have made Panetta’s task easy. When they aren’t focused on engineering, the students, mostly juniors and seniors and including the occasional male, may be learning new languages, playing the guitar or training for a marathon.

“We get a student who has other interests besides engineering,” Linda Abriola, dean of Tufts’School of Engineering, told PRISM. She also pointed out that the school has no attrition rate, something that Nerd Girl Joanna Rucker attributes to a low student to faculty ratio, according to the magazine. The publication also noted that nearly 30 percent of those who earn bachelor’s degrees from Tufts School of Engineering are female compared with 20 percent nationwide.

While the Nerd Girls’extracurricular interests vary, those who participate share a bond: They work together on exciting projects and they communicate that excitement through outreach to area schoolchildren.

According to PRISM, as Nerd Girls has evolved, it has become Panetta’s “mission to immerse students as young as freshmen in hands-on projects.” In addition to building a solar racing car, the team has worked together to develop alternative energy solutions to power an 18 th century lighthouse on a small island off the coast of Rockport, Mass.

Currently, members of Nerd Girls are also developing a system that will enable people with physical disabilities to interact more effectively with “helper monkeys” trained to aid them with their daily tasks. The engineers’ main objective is to design a mechanism that will enable people to let the monkeys in and out of their cages using voice-activated software.

“There are people lined up for these [cage] doors, so the pressure is on,” Valery Thompson, a senior electrical and biomedical engineering student, told PRISM. “But so far this has been my favorite project because it’s improving someone’s life.”

The Nerd Girls take that enthusiasm for their work to local schools, where they talk to students in an effort to pique their interest in science and technology. PRISM reported that Panetta and some of her students recently spoke to a group of eighth graders from Massachusetts who paid a visit to Tufts. Among Panetta’s key points: Engineering is exciting. “If you think being an engineer is sitting around and being boring, you’re dead wrong,” she told the youngsters.

According to PRISM, “Many of the Nerd Girls say the experience has helped shape their future.” This year’s crop of graduates fielded offers from prominent companies like Goldman Sachs, Ford and General Motors, as well as leading graduate schools.

PRISM also noted that Nerd Girls “has caught the attention of the local and national press,” with a reality television show potentially on the horizon. While the details have not been finalized, Panetta told PRISM that it’s an exciting opportunity.

“It’s going to change the way our nation’s youth thinks about engineering,” she told the publication.

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