ORONO, Maine — Although she had never handled a soldering iron before, Samantha McEwen mastered the technique quickly. She touched the slender, red-hot point of the iron to a thin strand of lead solder, using the molten blob to bond the wire pins of a 4.7 ohm resistor to the copper surface of the matchbook-sized circuit board on the bench before her.
McEwen, a sixth-grader at the Glenburn School, was in a group of young girls assembling blinking LED lamps Saturday morning under the watchful eye of professor Rosemary Smith in the electrical engineering laboratory at the University of Maine. The Barrows Hall lab was one stop in a busy lineup of workshops for about 90 Girl Scouts from around the state who were invited to the Orono campus to get some engineering experience and to learn more about a career in engineering.
If girls are interested in medicine, the environment, energy production or other fields, said Dana Humphrey, dean of the college of engineering, an engineering education is a powerful investment. Robotic surgical devices and prosthetics, energy-generating wind turbines and wood-based biofuels are among the many advances de-veloped by engineers, Humphrey said in his welcoming address to the Scouts.
“If you’re concerned about the problems of the world and want to solve those problems, engineering is a really great career,” he said. “If you just want to complain about the problems, there are lots of other careers where you can do that.”
The girls toured the engineering facilities at UMaine and took part in projects, learning more about the different disciplines that come under the broad umbrella of the male-dominated profession.
In the chemical engineering lab, they synthesized gold nanoparticles that can be used to help identify and treat certain kinds of cancer. In the forest bioproducts facility, they used a high-temperature chemical reaction to produce acetone from wood fibers and seaweed. They rolled up vertical tubes of paper and tested them for the greatest weight-to-strength ratio in the civil engineering lab. They toured the Advanced Structures and Composites Center, where student researchers develop products such as the lightweight concrete “bridge in a backpack” and bulletproof coatings for military and law enforcement applications.
About 20 percent of engineering students at the University of Maine are women, Humphrey said.
“I’m not satisfied with that,” he said. The field offers many attractive options for women as well as men, he said, including well-paid jobs in the public or private sectors, the opportunity to work outside or indoors, flexible hours and the promise of solving important problems for individuals, communities and the planet.
“We really need more women in engineering, because problems in society affect everyone but solutions developed only by men may not be the best solutions for everyone,” he said. The university actively recruits women for its engineering programs, he said, through school-based programs and by working with groups such as the Girl Scouts to promote interest at an early age. The university participates in the statewide Girls Engineer Maine, or GEM, program, to raise awareness and aspiration among girls, he said.
For Samantha McEwen and the other Scouts participating on Saturday, the day was an opportunity to explore. McEwen said she’s not at all sure that a career in engineering is for her, but it might be.
“I like science best,” she said, carefully fitting an eight-pin integrated circuit into the circuit board of her flasher. “I’m especially interested in robotics.”
The day of workshops concluded in the late afternoon.