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UMass jewelry-making event seeks to inspire young girls to pursue engineering careers



Monday, February 02, 2015
AMHERST — In her almost four years studying electrical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Kelly Kennedy said she has spent a lot of her time in the basement of Marcus Hall in a space called “The Exploratorium.” Students go there to do homework or just follow an engineering whim that could take them in an unexpected direction.

On Saturday, Kennedy and about two dozen of her fellow engineering students played host to 11 Girl Scouts in “The Exploratorium,” showing many of them what may be an unexpected career path. The girls, who came to learn to make an illuminated necklace, explored not just circuitry and basic programming, but what it means to be an engineer.

“What we are trying to do is inspire and show girls that engineering can be fun,” Kennedy said.

The piece of jewelry they created was a pendant of LED lights with a circuit board in the center which controls the necklace’s patterns by illuminating the colored bulbs in different patterns.

Kennedy said her day was made when she overheard one of the Girl Scouts, who had told her earlier she didn’t know what coding was, exclaim that she wanted to go reprogram her necklace.

Kennedy, a senior, is president of the UMass chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, a group dedicated to supporting women and girls in the field.

The event was all about presenting possibilities for the future, she said.

If Elizabeth Charron’s experience was an indication, it was a smashing success. The Belchertown middle school student said the day changed her outlook. Charron said she attended the event mainly because some friends thought it might be fun. Now she is thinking about engineering as a career.

“It’s definitely one of the candidates for what I want to do when I grow up,” Charron said. The 11-year-old has added it to horseback riding instructor and author on her list of possible pursuits.

“Yesterday I pretty much thought that engineering was about fixing things and not really building things,” she said, “but it’s different. It’s really cool making things and seeing them work.”

The UMass students, both female and male, who participated did a tutorial themselves beforehand to learn about the device they’d be working with. It’s called an Adafruit GEMMA - miniature wearable electronic platform.

They set up three workstations: one for wiring, one for soldering and another for programming.

Tamara Sobers, a doctoral student from Boston, was showing Madeline Jacyszn, 12, of Holyoke how to program the pendant by plugging the circuit board into a laptop and manipulating numbers to get the necklace to present either a solid color, a pattern or a random combination of colors and patterns.

The three colored LED bulbs, red, green and blue, in each part of the ring, could be combined to create purple, orange, yellow and even more colors.

“It’s very similar to taking primary colors and mixing them together,” Sobers told her young partner.

Jacyszn, who said she was there because her mother signed her up, was impressed. It’s “amazing that people come up with this stuff,” she said.

Her take-away from the experience was that “engineers basically figure out how things work and are improving things to make our lives easier.”

Marina DiCocco, a UMass junior in industrial engineering was once a Girl Scout herself. She said she was taken by some of the innovations the younger girls came up with. For example, one suggested sticking the lighted circles to the back of a cellphone, because young people wave their phones at concerts.

“That’s just a really cool idea,” DiCocco said, indicative of what happens when people get together to think.

DiCocco said she liked being a role model. “It feels really good to know that you are helping someone and that someday she might become an engineer.”

DiCocco added that many girls don’t consider studying engineering because they perceive it as a male-dominated field.

“I think it’s very important for young girls to see other girls like us doing engineering projects,” she said. Paula Rees, director of the Diversity Programs Office at the College of Engineering, helped organize the event.

“Our goal is to draw a different population into engineering as a career and show them some of the really cool things you can do to help society,” she said. “A lot of young women know what a doctor does to help society, or how a lawyer can become an advocate for social justice, but when you talk about engineering girls hit a wall.”

Not only did the Girl Scouts get a sense of the kinds of things engineers do, they got to meet older versions of themselves about to enter the field.

“We want to show them that there are these young women who are beautiful and personable and outgoing just like them that are going to be engineers,” said Rees.

Eric Goldscheider can be reached at eric.goldscheider@gmail.com.