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breaking the stigmas and stereotypes of women in engineering


A Project and Documentary for Attracting Women
to Careers in Science and Engineering

* Abstract
* The Documentary
* The Car, The Team, The Challenge
* Implementation

Despite efforts to attract women to engineering and science careers, these technical fields still remain elusive and do not appeal to young girls. While workshops and dedicated outreach efforts in K-12 continue to target this invisible barrier by introducing young girls to the workplace and to special math and science projects, the negative perception of women engineers and scientists is compounded by the "egghead" stereotype associated with engineering and science in general. Engineers and scientists are typically known as "geeks" or "nerds" and are considered lacking in social skills and non-technical interests. [top]

The Documentary
This project, entitled "Nerd Girls," will incorporate a documentary on women in engineering, one that takes an in-depth look at several female students' personal lives as they pursue their engineering degrees. The film will not only present the non-profit, group of volunteer students performing engineering tasks but will showcase them as models for how well-rounded, attractive, and intelligent young women can aspire to be engineers.

The best way to describe the film's intent is a cross between MTV's "Real World" and PBS' "NOVA." The audience will witness the challenges the team faces as it attempts to take on a difficult and complex task for which the members have no experience. Simultaneously, the audience will get to know the personality of each member of the team, along with their lifestyles.
Such an approach attempts to capitalize on the popularity of youth-oriented television shows that depict attractive, popular young people in pursuit of fame and fortune. "Nerd Girls" will demonstrate that education is the key to personal success and that engineering education affords anyone, regardless of gender and socio-economic background, a great opportunity. In essence, the film will show how the "American dream" is obtainable through brainpower and determination. [top]

The Car, The Team, The Challenge
The engineering team task for the "Nerd Girls" will be to build a solar car. Tufts University has female engineers who have danced in the Nutcracker ballet, sang at the Apollo Theater, are award-winning pianists, and nationally ranked athletes. The mission of this program is to show a wide audience of young women and young men how successful these students are as they work together to design and construct an engineering system. The project will showcase the young women's talents, diverse backgrounds and engineering skills. The team will build an energy efficient automobile and will drive it down the East coast, visiting local communities along the way and sharing their experiences with K-12 educators and students. As well, they will interact with professional women engineers who will consult on the project.

Another unique aspect of this program will be an effort to attract women into university teaching and research. The audience will witness interactions of Dr. Panetta with her team as they work together, travel together and learn about each other as individuals, beyond their proscribed roles as teacher and student. [top]

The implementation plan for Nerd Girls has two major components, namely, the research, design and implementation of the car-building process and the actual filming of the documentary. Tufts University is known for its integration of engineering and the humanities across curriculum boundaries. The Principal Investigators, Karen Panetta and Howard Woolf, are the co-directors of the university's Multimedia Arts program. This curricular innovation strives to create learning environments in which students from engineering and the humanities share their talents on projects which embody a cross-fertilization of ideas and practices, one that represents a key direction for the future in the arts, in computed aided design, and in applications development and use.
Karen Panetta's "Animation for Technical Communications" course was the first course at Tufts to use animation as a method for communication and visualization. Within the framework of the course, teams of student engineers, biologists and musicians stretched their understanding far beyond the boundaries of their home disciplines while producing animated simulations, 3D shorts, and educational CD-ROMs.

Taking advantage of the new digital video technologies that became available in the late 90s, Howard Woolf created Tufts first film and multimedia production center, called "The Video Lab" Out of this initiative has come his course, "Making Movies," in which teams of students from every conceivable discipline undertake a study of film language while, at the same time, receive training in camera, lighting, audio and computer-based editing. Students from "Making Movies" have produced what now numbers as nearly two-dozen documentaries, short features and experimental films.

Leveraging the successful integration of the Multimedia Arts program at Tufts, "Nerd Girls" will involve students and faculty, under Mr. Woolf's supervision, in the filming, scoring, special effects, and editing of the documentary, while Dr. Panetta will assume responsibility for the research and implementation of the car building effort, as well as mentoring the team. [top]