Last October in a noisy ballroom in Nashville, Tenn., six girls sat at a round table to design a spacecraft that could land on the moon. They started by thinking about ways the craft could fail. If it lands too hard, for example, the astronauts could be injured or killed. And a parachute won’t help. It works only when it falls through the air — which the moon doesn’t have. At length, the girls settled on two designs. Both relied on springs to soften the landing.
Then came the harder part: Building and testing models. That wouldn’t be easy, considering that their materials were limited to a few drinking straws, a couple of notecards, a small paper cup and a handful of marshmallows. The marshmallows represented the astronauts. The cup was the spacecraft.
"We can bend these four straws — then they’re kind of like a spring," offered one ponytailed team member, age 13. She reached for a straw and duct tape. An 11-year-old scooped up a marshmallow astronaut and pretended to bite.
"Ew. That’s a gross idea," called out another lunar-lander design engineer.
"Not if you’re hungry!" protested another, laughing. After much cutting, bending, taping and talking, the team tested its final version. The marshmallow astronaut plummeted down — and stayed secure inside its spacecraft cup. Success!
These girls, along with hundreds more, were attending a program of the Society of Women Engineers: Invent It. Build It. During this annual event, girls in grades 6 to 8 solve problems using the ideas and methods of science. In other words, that makes they become engineers for a day.
"You can change the world with engineering," says Mary Perkinson, who directs programs like this one for the Society. "You have the opportunity to make a big impact." As an engineer, Perkinson helps design and improve the cranes used in construction and building big ships at Newport News Shipbuilding, in Virginia. "I hire people who like to work with their hands — and aren’t afraid of heights," she says.
The Invent It. Build It. program offers girls hands-on experience with problem-solving. Many of those girls may go on to become researchers. That’s important because there’s a glaring gap between men's and women’s participation in science and engineering.
According to the most recent U.S. data, only one in six engineers is a woman. Only about two in every five chemists are female. (Chemists study the properties of different substances.) And there is only one woman in computer science and mathematics for every three men.
Read more of this article in Science News for Students.