By Beau Yarbrough San Bernardino County Sun, Calif.
More than 20 middle school girls clustered around small plastic robots in a Cal Poly Pomona classroom, trying to teach them not to fling themselves off a table and break.
"It's good for them to see this," said Kathy Diaz, a math teacher from Slauson Middle School in Azusa. "For a lot of them, this is the first time seeing a college campus."
It was also the first time many of them had seen so many other girls and women passionate about math and science.
Nearly 400 female middle and high school students from around Southern California converged on the university's classrooms and quads Friday morning for the fifth annual YES! event.
The "Youth Engineering Success" program was meant to introduce students from Azusa, Downey, Grand Terrace, Hemet, Los Angeles, Palmdale, Santa Ana, Rialto and Victorville to engineering, a field that girls their age traditionally fall away from as they get older and are pushed into more traditional feminine careers.
"When I was a girl, sometimes I would get intimated by society, just by the way that society views engineers. On television, you only see male engineers or hear the stereotype at school: 'oh, girls can't be engineers,'" said Sevanne Calle, the outreach chairwoman for the Cal Poly Pomona chapter of the Society of Women in Engineering, which helped organize the event on Friday. "I never really thought about being an engineer: 'oh, that's just what men do.'"
It was even more true for instructor Jody Hamabata, who showed the girls how to program the robots to detect the black tape marking the edge of the table.
"When you tested for what career you would be, the girls were told 'nurse,' 'accountant. 'Engineer' never showed up. I was just lucky," she said.
A family friend spotted Hamabata's aptitude for engineering and steered her that way.
"Once we expose it to them, we give them that idea and put it into their head that they can do anything they want," said Calle, a second-year mechanical engineering major. "We want to inspire them that it's possible."
Calle's family had immigrated from Bolivia, where her father's dreams of becoming an engineer hadn't worked out.
"He always talked to me about his career path. I started looking into it, and he helped me get into it," she said.
Although a class of 30 engineers at the university might still only have "two or three" female engineers, Calle said the prejudice older female engineers once faced is fading.
"Men are more accepting of women engineers," she said. "They view us like anyone else."
Calle believes events like Friday's YES! event will help boost the numbers of future female engineers:
"I'm looking at all the reactions I got today, seeing their face light up when they get something right or when they do a project," she said.
After graduation, she hopes to work in the biomedical engineering field, building cheaper and more affordable devices for artificial organ transplants and prosthetics.
At the robotics demonstration, the Slauson Middle School students programmed their robots to spot the difference between the light color of the table and the black electrical tape lining the edge of the table, allowing the robots to careen safely across its surface, never quite falling off.
"You guys are never this quiet in class," Diaz said.