AIKEN - Using only a small piece of paper and scissors, Savannah River Site engineer Jill Brown instructed a group of giggling middle school girls to cut a hole in the paper large enough to fit their bodies through.
After several minutes of failed attempts, Ms. Brown showed the pupils s how to accomplish the tricky task by folding the paper in half and making a series of strategic cuts.
"That is what engineering is - critical thinking," she told the girls. "You have to expand your knowledge of paper."
The group of about 30 girls from several area middle schools were more successful at other tasks Saturday during a program called Introduce A Girl to Engineering Day, in which they tried their hands at engineering demonstrations and learned more about careers in engineering.
The daylong event at the University of South Carolina Aiken's Ruth Patrick Science Center was organized by SRS engineers and the Society of Women Engineers. It was designed to work on easing the approaching shortage of workers skilled in engineering disciplines.
"Unless they have a parent who is an engineer, girls this age are not likely to give much thought to engineering as a career option," said Susan Wood, director of the SRS applied research and development laboratory. "We want to give them a reason to add it to the careers they are considering."
The event included games to help girls discover where their interests lie and hands-on activities to show them how their natural problem-solving abilities form the basis for many engineering skills.
Ashley Pittman of Merriwether Middle School is already planning for an engineering career.
"I became very interested in science this year, and my mom was like, science and engineering might be a good career for you. So I went and talked to my science teacher about it and that's how I got here," the 13-year-old said.
But Stephanie Carver from A.L. Corbett Middle School was somewhat intimidated by Saturday's events.
"I want to be a lawyer, really," she said. "I like math and science, but I don't know if I can strategize and analyze all that kind of stuff. At least I have a better understanding of it."
Nationwide and worldwide, engineering experts are expecting an unprecedented shortage of skilled engineers, according to the U.S. Labor Department, which estimates here will be 5.3 million new high-tech jobs to fill over the next eight years.
Although women make up about half of the work force, they are fewer than 10 percent of the nation's engineers. Dr. Wood said that females represent a huge untapped talent pool for future engineers and scientists.
One of the reasons that so few females go into engineering is because they do not receive adequate math and science education in high school. That's the reason for focusing on middle-school girls, Dr. Wood said.
"If we catch their interest now, they will see a reason to sign up for the math and science courses thy need in high school," she said. "The more math and science they take, the broader their options."
Jaclyn Spear of SRS said Saturday's event was the first step toward establishing a mentoring program.
"Girls need active, continuing encouragement to follow the interests that lead to careers in engineering and technology," Ms. Spear said. "They need to be encouraged by their parents and teachers. They also need mentors who have been there and can give them both guidance and moral support, as well as serving as examples of what careers in engineering can be like."
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 648-1395.