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Feature: Piercings, Not Pocket Protectors

con-fea-03-image111“Piercings, Not Pocket Protectors,” an article from the April 2007 issue of Prism magazine by Margaret Loftus, describes how a team of fun, hip “nerd girls” are seeking to change the stereotype of female engineers.

In her office at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., electrical and computer engineering professor Karen Panetta pulls out a stack of engineers’ portraits crayoned by elementary students who have participated in her outreach program. Many of the stick figures are wearing glasses, some have buck teeth and pimples, a lot of them are carrying a wrench. “Always with the wrench!” laughs Panetta. It’s as if she’d asked them to render the classic geek.

The truth is, you’d be hard-pressed to find one of those goofy archetypes around the halls of Tufts’ School of Engineering. And that’s exactly the point Panetta—decked out this winter morning in a pink polo shirt, black leggings and furry boots—is trying to drive home in an effort to recruit more females to the field. Her secret weapon: “The Nerd Girls,” a group of women engineering undergrads she formed to help dispel the myth that engineers are single-minded, antisocial types who favor pocket protectors and spend their days crunching numbers. And Tufts is a great place to start debunking that stereotype: Though its engineering program is small, it tends to attract slightly more females than many engineering schools. Between 2001 and 2005, women earned nearly 30 percent of the school’s engineering bachelor degrees, compared with an average of 20 percent nationwide. “We get a student who has other interests besides engineering,” says Tufts’ School of Engineering Dean Linda Abriola. “I think that’s attractive to females in general.”

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