VUSE volunteers encourage career goals at pair of Society of Women Engineers events

Vanderbilt University School of Engineering volunteers take middle school girls through an experiment about the environment on Saturday at the Society of Women Engineers national conference. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

Hundreds of middle school girls learned how a mini car runs off solar power, how to ionize water and how wind turbines create electricity – all thanks to Vanderbilt University School of Engineering volunteers who turned out in force on Saturday.

The brief lessons took place at the Society of Women Engineers’ Design It. Build It. session at the group’s national conference in Nashville, aimed at educating more girls about the field just as they start thinking seriously about careers.

While the middle schoolers made their way through three Vanderbilt and about 40 other demonstration booths at Music City Center, undergraduate women attending the conference spoke to School of Engineering professors and Ph.D. students at an invitation-only breakfast. Over a buffet of traditional Southern delights, they learned about the school’s efforts to recruit more women graduate students and faculty and the benefits they would receive by earning degrees at Vanderbilt.

It was a pair of volunteer opportunities that students at all levels plus professors said they appreciated – even though it meant extra work on a weekend.

Julie Adams, right, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering, speaks with guests at the graduate student recruiting breakfast. (Michele Cedzich/Vanderbilt University)

Rebekah Austin and Rachel Quinn, both Ph.D. candidates in electrical engineering, mingled with potential colleagues at the recruiting breakfast. They said they wanted other women to understand the support and collaboration they’ll experience at Vanderbilt that they might not find elsewhere.

“When someone told my table that our graduate students get along and help each other in a way they won’t find in other programs, I wanted to say, ‘No, but really! We do!’” Quinn said.

Breakfast guests began arriving 15 minutes early, but Julie A. Adams, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering, already was there to greet them as they came through the door. They crowded around her to ask questions and hear about research opportunities.

“It was important to me to be here,” Adams said. “It’s an opportunity to identify some potential strong recruits for the computer science graduate program. Conferences for groups such as this one are not usually held here, so this is a welcome chance to tell people about Vanderbilt and give them a concrete relationship to Nashville.”

Anita Mahadevan-Jansen, right, Orrin H. Ingram Professor of Biomedical Engineering, speaks with a potential graduate student. (Michele Cedzich, Vanderbilt University)

The Design It. Build It. program invited more than 500 local middle school girls, their parents and educators to learn more about engineering through hands-on activities.

Kristin Engerer, a graduate student in Interdisciplinary Materials Science, took the girls through the solar-powered model car demonstration. It uses a reversible fuel cell, which serves as an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen and oxygen, store those and then consume them to generate electrical power.

The cars were donated to Vanderbilt Student Volunteers for Science, Engerer said, but needed a middle-school-level lesson to go with them. She wrote it and said she was excited to see it in action at the SWE event.

Two tables away, Doug Adams, Daniel F. Flowers Professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, explained to three girls from Clarksville, Tenn., that more military bases are using wind turbines for power because it allows them to function should the power grid go down. Adams’ Laboratory for Systems Integrity and Reliability, a massive space in Nashville’s Metro Center, features a large wind tunnel to study wind turbine design and efficient wind power.

Gabrielle Floyd, center, and her mother, Yvette Floyd, visited the reversible fuel cell experiment booth. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

Girls who visited all the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering booths received free rubber bracelets as gifts.

Yvette Floyd of Brentwood, Tenn., said she wanted to take her daughter, Gabrielle, to the event so she could be exposed to engineering early – although she’s already learned a lot from Floyd’s sister, who is an engineer.

“It’s nice to be able to visualize yourself doing something,” Floyd said. “I love that the Society of Women Engineers thought about middle school girls.”


Heidi Hall, 615-322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering