A Passion For Engineering, One Marble At A Time

How do you get girls passionate about engineering? On a middle school field trip, one group is using marbles.

By Bill ZeebleMarch 9, 2016 9:30 am, ,

This story originally appeared on KERA.

Dozens of girls pack into a room in the Irving Convention Center. The project of the hour: build a ramp using construction paper, scissors and tape for a marble to roll down.

“It has to be the slowest and not the fastest,” 14- year-old Lauryn Whitley, from Richardson West Junior High, explains. “So you want your marble to roll the longest on your ramp.”

Lauryn and three others like solving this team problem. One of them decides bumps and curves will slow the marble. Another figures a long track that dips slightly will help.

To Meg O’Neill, this challenge gets kids focused on finding solutions using engineering. She’s an MIT-trained engineer, and is now Executive Assistant to the Chairman of ExxonMobil. The company’s a long time sponsor of this event.

“What’s really important is to get the kids to start thinking about the physics of the problem,” O’Neill says. “They don’t talk about it as the physics, but you can talk to them about a roller coaster. Well what do you need for a marble to roll? Well you need, in our words, an elevation change.  You need a slope. But they’ll say if it’s steep it’ll go too fast so it needs to be flatter.”

Organizers hope this is more than a fun getaway from school. They hope it inspires girls to pursue engineering.

Thirty five years ago, just six percent of engineers were women. Today, it’s now about 14 percent, according the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. About 20 percent of college engineering students are women, which is still low. Lynne Lachenmyer wants that to change. That’s why the chemical engineer, now an ExxonMobil Vice President, is mentoring this team of ramp-building girls.

“A lot of times they need to see somebody who is working in a field as an engineer. And if they don’t have a role model in their life, they don’t understand the opportunities that await,” Lachenmyer says. “By giving them a hands-on opportunity the students seem to come alive and really understand what it means to be an engineer.”

That seed seems to take root with Aman Alwan, who’s 12.

“I never thought engineering was going to be something I’d really like until now,” Aman says. “I never really worked with this before until now and I really like it.”

12 year-old teammate Valeria Huerta needed no such inspiration. The Carrollton-Farmers Branch student is already hooked on the sciences. She wants to be a doctor.

“Dad has cancer. Mom, asthma,” Valeria says. “Grandmother, heart issues, sister has asthma. It’s all in the line of family”

Valeria wants to help them all fight their battles, especially her dad.

“I want to be, when I grow, up the first person to find out how to cure cancer. That’s what I really want to do, is cure cancer right now. That would be awesome,” she says.

Now, it’s time for all these teams to roll marbles down their tracks. They get three tries.

“Ok, one more. Ready? 3, 2, 1!” shouts the ‘official’ time-keeper.

For this team, the first two rolls each lasted about 10 seconds on a straight sloping track spread over two long tables. Other teams built tracks with twists and turns, tubes and drops.

“11.65. Nailed it! Great job!”

With a roll of nearly 12 seconds, turns out this team actually did a great job, and won.