UC Berkeley Program Shows Middle School Girls Ins and Outs of Engineering

Middle school girls received a major dose of real-life engineering exposure during four week-long camps that took place this summer at the University of California, Berkeley. For the third year the school hosted "Girls in Engineering," which brings 30 students in grades 5-7 together for one week to build prosthetic arms and robots, develop communication and team skills, go on field trips to local companies such as Twitter and Pixar and meet with female researchers and students who demonstrate the technology they're developing.

This non-residential camp is intended, the university explains on its website, to help close the "gender gap" in STEM fields. Taught by Berkeley female faculty, staff and students, the program promotes leadership skills and encourages campers to pursue further education and careers in engineering and related fields.

For its part, Berkeley's undergraduate program in engineering has a female population of about 24 percent, above the national average of 19 percent, as reported by the American Society of Engineering Education.

During the latest camp, one area of emphasis was learning how 3D printing and open-source file sharing can be used to create custom hand prosthetics for children who need them. The girls watched a video about Sophie's super hand, a project begun in the University of California Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), one branch of which is housed at Berkeley.

"The big thing with kids' prosthetics is that they outgrow them quickly and need new ones. Another thing is that these prosthetics are customizable," said mechanical engineering doctoral student Aimee Goncalves to the girls. Goncalves led participants through assembly of prosthetic hands "fresh off the printers," as an article about the program reported.

The five hands built by the girls ended up being shipped to a project called the Prosthetic Kids Hand Challenge, which matches makers of prosthetics with kids who need them.

Added Girls in Engineering program director Lizzie Hager-Barnard, "We hope to see some of these girls back here on campus in another five years or so."

Although the 2016 camps have ended, the university is accepting applications online for both San Francisco area middle school campers and high school volunteers for its 2017 camps.

The program is supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, the Peggy and Jack Baskin Foundation, flash memory firm SanDisk and anime company Crunchyroll.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.