Posted on Jul 31, 2002

HANS PENNINK Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY – Using the link between high-tech design and the natural urge to help others, Union College wants to draw more women into the male-dominated world of engineering.

Twenty high school girls are in the second week of a new women's-only engineering summer camp on campus, where they learn about the field by designing electronic toys and communication devices for severely disabled children.

“We focused on something they could embrace immediately,” said Bob Balmer, dean of the Union division of engineering and computer science. “Certainly, I think that for girls of this age and children in need there is a natural affinity.”

Program directors modeled the live-in camp – Educating Girls as Engineers – on Summer Science Workshop, a camp for minority students that Union has hosted for seven years.

Only 10 percent of engineers nationwide are women, said Seena K. Drapala, president of the Capital Region Society of Women Engineers. And while the proportion of women in engineering schools is slowly climbing, it is currently about 20 percent.

In the first few days of the program, counselors brought the girls to Northwoods at Hilltop, a Niskayuna rehabilitation and care facility for the disabled. The girls met some of the children in the pediatric unit, who range in disability from being temporarily weakened by illness to children who have no ability to move.

Therapists told the girls that one of the biggest problems in treating severely immobilized children is that they have no sensory outlets, said Patty Pierce, an occupational therapist at Hilltop.

“Even if I'm just talking, I may be waving my hands in the air, or playing with my hair, or fidgeting, and I can use that to calm me under stress . . . We crave motion,” said Pierce. “But these children can't cope with stress because they can't move. They can't use sensory stimulation to calm themselves.”

Many of the girls designed toys like dolls that make sounds, or vibrate, or are brightly colored.

Drapala said research shows girls gravitate toward jobs with a “social connotation,” where they feel like they can affect people. Since they have so little exposure to engineering at an early age, few girls are attracted to the field. They disqualify themselves by dropping science and math early in their education.

Sixteen-year-old Molly Freeman said that after her visit, she wanted to help a wheelchair-bound 19-year-old Hilltop patient who only had partial use of one arm – enough to communicate using a modified computer keyboard, but not enough to touch his face.

“He was really smart, and it was sad that he couldn't use his intelligence because he was disabled,” said Freeman. “I know how sad he must be that he can't even brush his teeth and he's 19.”

Freeman and her lab partner modified a water bottle and tube to reach from the boy's hand to his face, and created attachments like a toothbrush and washcloth for the tool.

“It won't make him independent, but it will give him something more than what he had,” said Freeman.

In another project, the girls designed and built a device allowing someone who cannot talk to choose from a series of pre-recorded phrases like “I need to use the bathroom,” or “I'm thirsty.”

The device, which they named a “talking box,” would be simpler and less expensive than a dynavox, which is currently used by some disabled people.

In the talking box, the user holds a control panel with several small lights that blink in sequence. Each light corresponds to a phrase. When the user sees the light he wants, he pushes a button and a computer says the phrase.

To make the box, the girls had to learn to wire circuits and create a simple computer program to control them, something most of the girls had never done before.

“At first it seems really hard, but once you do one it's not so bad,” said 16-year old Jessica Donaldson.

Working with the girls, Professor Linda Almstead said having a girls-only class made a world of difference.

“It's important for girls to play with the toys boys play with without the boys butting in and taking over,” said Almstead. “It's not that boys are the enemy, it's just that the girls need a chance to explore these things on their own if they're going to make it their own.”