James Madison University

Educating Young Women about Engineering

By Jacquelyn Nagel

PHOTO: EngineeringHave you ever wondered how a bridge is capable of supporting a lot of weight? Using candy and toothpicks, young females explored the strength of shapes and how they relate to the structure of bridges during the JMU Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) Conference. The one-day event offers exciting, hands-on workshops to educate females in grades 7-10 about careers in Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering (STEM).

The engineering session led by Dr. Jacquelyn Nagel, Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering, and the JMU Society of Women Engineers (SWE) aims to excite young women about the field of engineering through the construction of bridges using only candy building supplies.

Nagel split the girls into teams and taught them how materials, geometry and weight play critical roles in bridge design.  Using licorice, gumdrops, candy bars, and toothpicks, teams were given 20 minutes to complete their design and build phase.

SWE members worked one-on-one with teams to reinforce concepts as well as keep their eye out for creative uses of building materials.  A few teams found creative uses for the licorice and the wrappers – some braided the licorice and used them as anchors while others used the wrappers to tie sections together.

Initially, they found the bridge building very easy, but were surprised during the testing to see their bridge collapse under the weight of full size candy bars. With the guidance of Nagle and the help of SWE, teams came up with solutions by making the entire structure lightweight yet strong using triangles and trapezoids. 

Testing was a good experience for all the participants as it demonstrated how materials, geometry and weight placement play a key role in bridge design. Furthermore, because each team tests their unique bridge while the others watch the girls make connections that reinforce the engineering concepts. Students learn to see engineering as an inventive and fun process that involves teamwork, creativity, and experimentation.

The workshop allowed the girls to collaborate with each other and the SWE volunteers. Paulina Hoang (’13) of SWE recounts, "It was great to see the young women eager to tackle the design challenge."

Not only is the session an outreach event to encourage females to enter into STEM fields, it also provides SWE students with leadership and outreach opportunities.

Overall, the workshop empowers young women to consider a career in engineering and meet successful women engineers and engineering students. Ziza Machado (’14), who volunteered for the first time this year, experienced the impact the workshop and the EYH conference overall had on the participants: 

“The highlight of that day was actually outside of the event. After the conference I went to Starbucks, and while I was there, a girl recognized me from the engineering candy bridges workshop. She was with some friends and she was telling them about the conference. I think the impact made on the lives of those who attended the conference is what makes the experience memorable.”

She also states, “I regret not having participated before, but I will ensure I participate again.”

The JMU EYH Conference is free and part of a nation wide effort supported by the Expanding Your Horizons Network.