Nerd Girls

Build a car? No sweat for these women in engineering

Karen Panetta knew early on that it was tough for women to be taken seriously in her profession if they wore jewelry, nail polish and bright-colored clothing. An associate professor of electrical engineering, she nevertheless favors pink suits, high heels and long hair. She plays flute and piano and proudly boasts she is the best in her belly dancing class. She had been told she doesn't look like a scholar and would never get grant money. Yet she proudly notes she has won five grant awards from NASA and earned a National Science Foundation career award.

The Nerd Girls and their engineering faculty mentor, Karen Panetta, prove you don't have to be a guy to build a car. © Mark Morelli

Engineers, she has been hearing throughout her education and career, are supposed to wear pocket protectors and taped eyeglasses, and women engineers, especially, are supposed to look drab and know lots about mathematical equations and are, well, nerds. Right?

Very, very wrong, says Panetta. As a way of showing just how wrong this notion is, Panetta has come up with a project called "Nerd Girls," which has a variety of goals, one of which is to redefine what a nerd is.

Against the stereotype
The six undergraduate Nerd Girls are designing and building a solar car and demonstrating at the same time that you don't have to be a nerd to be an engineer. Not only do these young women fail to illustrate the nerd stereotype, they don't spend all their time talking about logarithms and staring at computer screens. Jen Witken has danced in the "Nutcracker," and Stephanie Chin is a ballroom dance champion and web master. Beibhinn O'Donoghue is a reporter for The Tufts Daily. She and Megan Schwartz are co-presidents of the student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Nanette Martinez is a sophomore who is also an artist, while Katie Nordstrom is a nationally ranked player on the Tufts tennis team.

"I'm redefining what a nerd is," said Panetta. "I'm saying we're not what people think. We're diverse and talented. Young women in engineering can take on challenging projects and be proud of them. They won't be held back because they're women, and no one can say you can't be feminine to be an engineer."

The choice of building a car was very deliberate. Not only does it focus on renewable energy and safety, said Panetta, "but how many women work on cars?"

Car talk
But Nerd Girls is more than showing that accomplished women can build a car. Howard Woolf, associate director of the Experimental College, is overseeing the filming of a documentary about the project that Panetta hopes eventually will be shown on PBS. The filming is being done by freelance filmmaker Don Schechter, who is technical assistant to the Multimedia Arts Program at Tufts and associate producer of the documentary. Panetta says the documentary will bear some resemblance to the popular MTV show "Real World," in that the students will be shown doing normal activities as well as working on scientific endeavors. The film will show arguments, mistakes and successes.

The Nerd Girls are also doing educational outreach, showing young girls that yes, engineering is challenging but fun, too. They are scheduled to meet with elementary and middle school children to talk about solar energy and about women in engineering.

"I wanted to show that anybody, though education, can succeed," said Panetta. "If you target high school girls, it's too late. You need to reach them from ages 8 to 15, so they can realize it's a viable option. They don't have to dumb themselves down. They can show their confidence."

Lessons in life
When the car is completed, the students will drive it down the East Coast during spring break next March to show it to school children. They also will enter the car in the 2003 World Solar Challenge, to be held in Australia. The car will be named the "Anne E.B." and nicknamed Annie in memory of Anne Borghesani, an international relations major at Tufts who was murdered in 1990. Explaining why she chose to name the car for Borghesani, Panetta said, "engineering is a stressful and difficult curriculum, but nothing matters more than your life, not your grade, not whether you make the team or get into the best college. Annie helps us to remember that."

Panetta confesses she knew "as much as the students did" about building a car but wanted them to learn "that with problem solving and critical thinking skills, we could solve any problem."

Students meet once a week for two hours and do research on their own time. Their research must be completed on time as it affects everyone else's work, and they must present their findings to the group. The group has completed one car made with a body and frame from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "It was up to the students to put in the transmission, engine, shock absorbers, brake systems and wiring for the electrical systems. They learned what they liked and what they didn't like, so now they are starting from scratch to build a new car."

The major corporate sponsor for the project is M/A-COM, a subsidiary of Tyco Electronics in Lowell, as well as the Sears store in Peabody, Mass. Additional funding comes from the Spaulding Potter Foundation for Innovative Education.

Panetta also credits Steve Morrison, assistant professor of electrical engineering, as well as Warren Gagosian, principal electrical engineer who manages all the electrical and computer engineering labs in Halligan Hall, for their help with the project and Engineering Dean Ioannis Miaoulis for his support.