Barbara Hughey is the coordinator of the Women’s Technology Program in Mechanical Engineering (WTP-ME) at MIT, a four week summer program for high school junior girls that teaches the basic principles and ideas of mechanical engineering. Not only does WTP-ME support the SOLIDWORKS initiative of celebrating women in a so called “male dominated” industry but, it also helps bring future female engineers into the field who may not have considered joining in the first place. For that and her other outstanding achievements, Barbara is our newest Women in Engineering Recipient!
Barbara has always been passionate about science, but she originally did not plan on becoming involved in mechanical engineering; in fact, her first interest was in physics. “The way biology was taught then, and unfortunately is probably still taught now, you have to memorize a lot of stuff. I can memorize, I’m good at it, but I just don’t find that interesting. In physics, you can actually figure out what’s going on and then use math to quantify it; I just like that about physics. You can actually figure out what’s going on.”
After obtaining her Bachelor’s degree, Barbara then graduated from MIT with a PhD in Experimental Physics. “As it turned out, most of what I did in my job was essentially engineering; I was making systems, making setups, and testing them.”
A decade after obtaining her PhD, Barbara was conducting research for her career and was considering a change; “You keep trying new things and there are so many cases where something will work one day and you’ll be happy, and then you come in the next day, and you haven’t changed a thing and it doesn’t work again. That just got frustrating, the Sisyphean one step forward and four steps back.” She had been developing an interest in teaching and coincidentally, a professor at MIT approached her to run the lab for his class. “I thought that was perfect because I run the labs for this class but I don’t actually grade. I help the students with their experiments. I write the instructions and it’s just awesome; I just get to teach and it’s wonderful.”
Through teaching, Barbara has learned that while physicists and engineers have their similarities, they have a completely different thought process; “as a physicist, when I was doing something if I saw an interesting effect I would be like, ‘Okay, what does this mean? How do I figure it out? What’s going on? What’s the physics behind it?’ Whereas, if an engineer sees an effect that’s perhaps interesting, or perhaps a problem, their response is more, ‘Okay, I see this effect. Can I use it or do I need to get rid of it?’”
Women’s Technology Program in Mechanical Engineering at MIT
Surprisingly, the founder of the Women’s Technology Program was a male graduate student; he couldn’t help but notice that there was a lack of women in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department and decided to do something about it. In 2006, four years after the Women’s Technology Program in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (WTP-EECS) was established, the Dean of the School of Engineering at MIT decided that he wanted to expand the program into another department, and mechanical engineering was the obvious choice at the time; “there was only one female tenured professor. Also, the number of undergraduate majors was around 30%.” Both programs ended up being a huge success and the WTP-ME recently had their 10th anniversary!
The Women’s Technology Program is designed to give high school junior girls the needed basics to help them decide if they want to pursue engineering in college. “Our target audience is not girls who already know they want to be engineers. They don’t need us. Our target audience is girls who are really good in math and science but don’t really know anything about engineering.” Barbara does this by showing girls that there are actually many different facets to mechanical engineering; “No matter what your interests, you can probably find something to do in mechanical engineering that will inspire you.”
Every year, the WTP gets over 500 applicants and from that, the mechanical engineering program only accepts 20 girls each year (WTP-EECS accepts 40 students). Barbara explains to me that while the ratio between girls accepted and applicants is relatively low, the small class size is easily adaptable when planning the curriculum. Mechanical engineering is an incredibly broad topic, so the summer program has a lot of ground to cover; “Mechanical engineering, at least at MIT right now, covers everything. It has traditional engines. It’s got lots of robotics. It’s got quantum optics. It’s got bio-mechanical engineering. Mechanical engineering really covers everything, which meant that our curriculum for the summer program also had to be broad and flexible.”
“Then, we try to have sort of a capstone, hands-on project at the end of each week. The first week the capstone project is they build cranes out of blue foam. They have certain specifications and then we test them by hanging weights on them. The one that wins is not the one that can hold the most weight. The metric is the weight it can hold divided by the weight of the crane; we’re trying to teach them that you have to best utilize your materials. They can make a super heavy crane that can hold a lot of weight but they might not win because their crane is too heavy.”
The last two weeks of the program is when it really picks up. At this point the students have gone over the fundamentals and are ready to take a deeper dive into the different aspects of mechanical engineering that interest them the most. “The third week they’re working independently in pairs on a poster project. We give them a project which we try to tailor to their interests. I give them a little survey to find out what they’re interested in and I match them up in pairs with a mentor who’s often a grad student, but sometimes a professor.” Barbara recalls how one year, a group of girls created a robotic pair of shoes that adjusted based on the type of terrain one is walking on; they could go from webbed feet like a duck’s if the ground is spongey and wet, and then when walking in a rocky environment, the shoe could switch to something similar to a goat’s hoof.
The last week is Barbara’s favorite; the girl’s need to create a Rube Goldberg machine that encapsulates all of the different topics covered in the program, like thermal heat transfers and electronics while having a limited amount of momentum steps. “Then, the girls have to calculate what’s going on in each step. We have sheets they fill out where they draw the step and write down the equations. What are the inputs? What’s the system? What are the outputs? We’re trying to quantify the design process and make them understand what’s actually going on, and help them understand why we taught them everything in the first two weeks, because they need it all in order to make their Rube Goldberg machine.”
At the end of their time at WTP, the students not only gain a better sense of what mechanical engineering is, but it also introduces them to a network of girls who have the same interests as them. “You know, they’re the only girl in their AP physics class, so it’s just so wonderful for them to be in a community of other girls who are also interested in engineering.”
Sometimes, a student will come through the program and discover that they are not interested in becoming an engineer. Barbara does not take offense or think that this is a bad thing, she actually encourages it: “That’s a wonderful result because now you know. You’re making a decision based on information instead of a decision based on perceptions, which might be wrong. When I talk to them I’m interested in the problems they’re having. I want to make sure they understand it. I’m not judging them. I’m just trying to help them grow and learn.”
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