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.
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
"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?"
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
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.