Nerd Girls: the beauty of brains
An exciting extracurricular program at Tufts University is designed to give women engineering students important real-world experience
By Harriet King
Nerd Girls are proving that good looks, fashionable clothes, social skills and athletic ability mesh completely with being smart.
Composed mainly of female engineering students, the Nerd Girls group is the brainchild of Dr Karen Panetta, the first woman to rise from assistant to tenured full professor in the Tufts University School of Engineering. Her extracurricular program is designed to give budding women engineers around the world supervisory and real-world experience to make them especially valuable in the companies they join, or in their own thriving businesses. It’s also intended, Panetta notes, to put an end to the stereotype that women are not naturals in engineering and science.
Nerd Girls started at Tufts in 2000 with about eighteen students. The idea was to encourage empowerment and cooperation in an environment that mirrored the real world yet was still controlled.
Instead of learning mainly in classrooms, the women developed managing skills by establishing goals, setting up interdisciplinary projects and working with vendors and teams to carry them to success. Then they went out to show women on campus and in other schools that being an engineer did not preclude a well-rounded life.
Today some 4,000 Nerd Girls worldwide take part in the program, including women in Pakistan, Iran, South Korea, China and Turkey. In fact, says Panetta, “I receive about 2,000 emails a day from parents and students interested in Nerd Girls.” There’s been so much interest that the group is making a film documentary and considering a reality TV series.
Panetta and several of her students have appeared on TV shows like Today and in print in Elle and Newsweek. The group now has a number of sponsors including Verizon, Tyco, Teledyne, Spaulding, the Potter Foundation and IEEE.
Discipline and creativity
EE was the original focus of Nerd Girls, along with some ME students. These are probably the most underrepresented fields for women in engineering, Panetta notes. She has her MS and PhD in EE, and wanted to demonstrate to women that the field is not “dust and diagrams,” but the imaginative force behind social tools like the iPhone and the robotics that make Disney World such an exciting international destination.
EE is “a field where creativity and teamwork are essential,” Panetta says. “But many girls don’t understand what an EE actually does so they tend to ignore the profession.” It has never been as popular with women as ChE or EnvE, even though there’s a lot of EE expertise behind today’s exciting environmental projects, she points out.
The program works!
Some 98 percent of Nerd Girls go on to grad school as opposed to 22 percent of women engineers in general. Expanding their horizons by planning and supervising their own projects has led them on to professional success.
Tale of a Nerd Girl
Danielle Vardaro, a 2007 Tufts BSME and still a Nerd Girl, is now an engineer at Boeing as well as a grad student at the University of Washington-Seattle. She works on the Boeing 777 by day and pursues her MS in the evenings. She’s also a member of IEEE and SWE.
When she was a sophomore at Tufts, Vardaro saw a notice about the group on the school bulletin board. She thought it sounded like a good way to try a more hands-on approach to her ME specialty.
Nerd Girls put Vardaro to work on its solar car project where she contributed both leadership and technical skills. As manager of the mechanical team she helped design the car frame assembly using carbon fiber composites, and modeled and analyzed all parts and components of the car and frame assembly.
Important aspects of her experience, she says, were learning interdisciplinary procedures and how to collaborate successfully with the ten girls on her team. “This type of project takes you away from the number crunching and gives you something concrete to work with,” she notes. “It’s the opportunity to explore what doing your homework can actually accomplish.” The leadership skills she acquired gave her a head start in the real world.
“And the more female engineers I talked to, the more confident I became as an engineer,” she reports. “It really helped to be surrounded by supportive female role models. Working with these women on meaningful projects built real excitement for what I was doing!”
Engineers who help mentor the Nerd Girls come from many fields. By working with a variety of projects and activities, the mentors are expanding their own knowledge and increasing their skills outside their own fields, Panetta points out. She calls it a win-win situation.
Getting the word out
Dr Panetta and IEEE also work with high school counselors to increase awareness of what engineering can offer women. They answer questions and fill in the blanks to help counselors steer promising students in the right direction. Panetta also founded and edits IEEE’s Women in Engineering magazine. “We send more than 15,000 copies to counselors,” she says.
Nerd Girl projects
Panetta’s Nerd Girls are big on solar power. In addition to the ongoing solar car project, they’ve converted a landmark lighthouse and some homes to solar power.
They also created a voice-activated door for an assistance animal, and are working on an electronic larynx to help throat cancer patients regain a normal-sounding voice. “This is a project with far-reaching implications given the artificial-sounding boxes in use today,” Panetta says.
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