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Eighth-grade girls get hands-on lesson in science, math, engineering at Syracuse University

Syracuse, NY — Cazenovia High School eighth-grader Taylor Ketcham wants to be an oceanographer when she grows up.

Emily Leary, an eighth-grader at Wellwood Middle School in the Fayetteville-Manlius school district, hopes to one day design robots or maybe become a veterinarian.

Maja Cannavo, a Manlius Pebble Hill School eighth-grader who lives in the city of Syracuse, said she hasn’t decided what she wants to be yet.

But they all have one thing in common: The desire to learn more about math, science and engineering. Of the 120 girls who applied, 41 girls from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania were selected to attend two separate weeklong programs at Syracuse University.

A group of 21 incoming eighth graders arrived Sunday afternoon, ate in a dining hall and slept in a college dorm. Monday morning, the girls were in “class,” ready to tackle their first hands-on activity: create the most efficient windmill as possible using household materials, including a metal pie tin, paper plate, pencil, straw and pins.

Project ENGAGE at Syracuse University will focus on sustainability and alternative energy this week.

Twenty incoming ninth-graders have been selected to attend next week’s program, which will focus on engineering and the human body, said Laura J. Steinberg, dean of L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science at Syracuse University.

“These are girls who have an incredible can-do attitude and great confidence,” she said.

Steinberg came up with the idea years ago of having a program, like Project ENGAGE, to encourage girls to excel not only in math, sciences and engineering, but also to showcase all their skills and talents.

Her idea was based on two beliefs: In the future, engineering is going to need women to enter the field in much larger than numbers they do now. And second, the field will need “practitioners who aren’t only good in math and science, but are talented enough to undertake almost any career.”

Syracuse University alumnus Tom McCausland, who chairs the Siemens Foundation, said he met with Steinberg last year after learning about the college’s efforts to get younger students interested in science, technology, engineering and math.

The Siemens Foundation, which provides more than $7 million annually in support of educational initiatives in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math nationally, agreed to sponsor Project ENGAGE. The foundation’s purpose, McCausland said, is to encourage STEM education in kindergarten- through 12th grades and continuing education for junior high and high school science teachers.

“These are the kind of activities we like to encourage,” said McCausland, who graduated in 1960 from Onondaga Valley Academy in Syracuse and four years later from SU.

“We have young women who are deciding what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” he said. “We’re just trying to show them science, engineering and math are fun and can solve a lot of issues that confront society.”

Both McCausland and Steinberg said their hope is that this year’s pilot program can expand across the country at other colleges and universities to reach even more girls.

Vivian Mueller, an eighth grader at LaFayette High School, said she’s glad she applied and was accepted into Project ENGAGE.

”It’s not school and it’s not a normal camp, but it’s fun, and I’m learning a lot,” she said.

She had thought about becoming an engineer one day, but now she’s thinking she’d like to be an architect.

On Monday, Mueller said she had fun making a windmill and liked the way it looked, but eventually figured out that it would have spun faster if the blades weren’t so close to the pencil or so fragile. Mueller, 13, said she loves building tree forts, Legos and Kinects with her brother, and is looking forward to building a model house out of recycled materials with her peers later this week.

“Girls of this age have so much creativity and this gives them a chance to funnel some of that creativity into engineering projects,” Steinberg said.

”It also gives them a chance to spend time with girls who are all outstanding and have similar interests and ambitions,” she said. “It is my hope they will stay friends over the years, especially as they confront some of the social pressures of high school, which sometimes derail girls’ interest in engineering and science.”