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NMSU workshops designed to help steer girls to engineering

Ashley Gilpin, 11, kneeling, with help from Haden Hankins, 12, right, and Madison Cox, 11, middle, clocks the time it takes cars to get through the fast food drive-through line. Cynthia Leon, 12, standing left, and Margi Miranda, 14, record the stats for the NMSU workshop.

(NMSU photo by Kevyn Palmer)

When you're sitting in a fast-food drive-through lane, do you ever wonder why sometimes the lines seem to move faster than others? A group of Las Cruces middle-schoolers can give you some reasons, thanks to an innovative New Mexico State University program in which 11- to 14-year-old girls visit campus and experience an engineering project first-hand.

Linda Riley, an assistant professor of industrial engineering in NMSU's College of Engineering, created the program as a way of interesting girls in math, science and engineering. Having come from a business background, Riley said she noticed a disparity between the numbers of males and females in engineering when she switched to that field.

"I was curious as to why that was true, and started to research the causes of that disparity," Riley said. "I found a lot of information, some of it contradictory. That made me ask, How can we get more girls to study engineering?'"

With grants from the Engineering Information Foundation and Boeing Corporation, and support from NMSU's College of Engineering, she aims to find out. Riley developed six one-day workshops for middle school-aged girls to teach them about industrial engineering topics. The purpose is to introduce the girls to some positive female role models in science and engineering fields, and to boost the girls' self-esteem by having them work on an engineering project. "We wanted to show them engineering is not magic," Riley said. "They can do it."

She targeted girls in the seventh and eighth grades because research has shown the junior high age range is when kids develop their perceptions of math and science. It also sets them up to choose high school classes that prepare them for college courses. In other words, said Riley, "If you want to go into engineering, it's best to get an early start."

The "Girls in Engineering Today, Improving Tomorrow" workshops will cover three industrial engineering areas, Riley said. Each free session, which can accommodate 20 students, will cover one topic, with two sessions devoted to each topic.

The first two seminars, titled "Why Wait? Having Fun with Lines," were held in December. To learn about queuing theory and simulation modeling, the girls split into two groups, traveling to either Burger King or McDonald's, where they timed how long it took cars to go through the drive-through lines. They then returned to NMSU, where they used computers to develop models about how customers flowed through the lines. At the end of the day they presented their findings to the other girls and their parents.

Kim Beveridge, an NMSU industrial engineering master's student who is serving as project manager, said the girls described the sessions as fun and exciting. "They had nothing but great things to say," she said. "All the girls had a great time and said they learned a lot." The parents were impressed and happy with the program as well, Beveridge said.

The program will continue this spring with four more seminars in which participants will learn about other industrial engineering topics, such as statistical quality control and production floor layout. During those workshops they will take part in similar experiments, leading to similar presentations, said Riley. As a result, she hopes participants will consider math, science and engineering fields as potential career paths.

Riley is researching the influence of the workshops by testing the attitudes and perceptions of the participants in regard to math, science and engineering before and after they have completed the workshops. If the program proves successful, she hopes it can be applied to other disciplines.

Brochures about the program will be distributed through the schools. For more information, contact Riley at (505) 646-2475.