"Nerd Girls" TV Program Challenges Stereotypes

IEEE.tv features a reality show about a team of female engineering students trying to build a solar car

7 May 2008

In the midst of reality TV shows featuring dancers, models, and singers trying to make it in show business, IEEE.tv is now showing a pilot of a reality show about a team of female engineering students trying to build a solar car. The group from Tufts University in Medford, Mass., called Nerd Girls, attracted the interest of producer Kristina Johnson, whose California-based production company filmed the project last summer.

This video is the pilot episode of the “Nerd Girls” reality series, which will feature female engineering students from several colleges collaborating to work on a number of projects, including developing renewable energy systems and assistive technology for the disabled.

THE DRAWING BOARD The 9-minute film shows a group of 16 Nerd Girls—mostly seniors majoring in computer science, mechanical engineering, and related fields—as they began working last June to fix up an old solar-powered racecar that was built and raced in the 1990s by students at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. The car has been reconstructed by previous Nerd Girl teams, but it lacked the performance needed to compete in a race.

Under the direction of IEEE Fellow and Tufts engineering professor Karen Panetta, the group did online research and worked with professional engineers to figure out how to improve the car. In the film, Panetta points out some of the car’s design flaws, like the awkward placement of the controls and the lack of visibility from the driver’s seat.

Students were able to work in their areas of expertise and put their skills to the test. IEEE Member and computer science major Lauren Jones worked on coding for a programmable gate array—the computer inside the dashboard that displays information about the car’s speed and any mechanical problems that may arise.

“Who doesn’t want to work on a solar car as an undergrad?” Jones says in the video. “It’s always a good conversation starter, especially at job interviews.”

The car is equipped with solar cells that harness the sun’s energy and charge the batteries that power the car. The team decided to place batteries on either side of the car so that if one failed, the other would provide backup power. Mechanical engineering major Laura Sullivan used a computer-aided design program to illustrate where to install the batteries. Joanne Rucker, a mechanical engineering major, helped design a motor that would run at about 3500 rpm and also allow the car to run at speeds from 95 to 105 kilometers per hour.

That class of Nerd Girls finished building the car last October, and the new class has another car in the works, Panetta says. Although the Nerd Girls were still seniors at the time the video was shot, several of them have already found high-paying jobs at engineering companies.

HOW IT STARTED In 1996 Karen Panetta began an outreach program for Tufts' female engineering students. She says she wanted to form a group of multitalented students to challenge the stereotype that women in engineering are “lacking in social skills and nontechnical interests.”

“There were very few girls in engineering programs when I was in school, but we were all very well rounded, and I couldn’t understand why there were so many stereotypes that girls couldn’t be successful in math, science, and engineering,” Panetta says.

The program was officially dubbed Nerd Girls in 2000. Panetta introduced the program into the curriculum by designing a class in which students—male and female—work closely with industry on various engineering projects.

To watch the video, visit IEEE.tv’s Web site at http://www.ieee.tv.

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