She's got a ticket to ride...;Subject of the week;Technology

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
... and the journey could take her - and thousands of girls like her - into the uncharted territory of a career in science and engineering. Stephanie Northen joined the WISE bus to see how.

Tall, slim, intelligent blonde, aged 18, seeks fulfilment, respect and money. Travel a bonus... If that conjures up the stereo-typical image of a wannabe supermodel, then think again. This particular 18-year-old is more likely to be designing the catwalk than parading on it.

Alison Sheppard suspects she knows where fulfilment lies. Her route to success and satisfaction is through mechanical engineering. Gulp.

It's quite something, isn't it? Even in these "enlightened" times, a female mechanical engineer seems, well, unlikely. And Alison is, at the very least, unusual. She is currently doing a year in industry, spending 12 months between school and Liverpool University working underground. Employed by Trackforce, she works at night, helping to keep London's Underground creaking along. The company has 300 staff, 295 of them men. On the technical side there are two women, both students. Alison says she encounters surprise but no prejudice.

It seems she cannot escape transport. Today she has forsaken her Tube trains for a bus. And far from being a supermodel, she is acting as a role model.

It's a nice bus, old and curvaceous - the sort of vehicle that once ferried genteel folks on day trips to the seaside. Now it is ferrying 13 and 14-year-old girls into careers in science and engineering. At least, that is the aim.

The bus is parked in the grounds of La Retraite Catholic girls' school in south London. It arrived, free of charge, courtesy of Women into Science and Engineering (WISE), a programme launched in 1994 by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Engineering Council. The WISE fleet of five buses and one huge trailer has so far visited 1,500 schools, trying to tempt 275,000 girls to break the career mould.

The rows of seats have long gone, their place taken by workbenches crowded with computers, oscilloscopes and assorted hardware, wires and tubes everywhere. In front of all this sit 16 girls. They are being helped by Devon Williams, a biologist-turned-biophysicist-turned-teacher of 17 years' standing, and herself a role model of passionate commitment to science. She says she gets so excited in the lab that the girls say at the end of a class: "You really enjoyed that lesson, didn't you Miss?" She loves the "simplicity, the logic of science" and "the fact that the answer is there if you look for it". And she loves the WISE bus. "If my lab were set up like this it would make my life so easy."

The set-up comprises eight projects for the girls to work through. They can try their hand at computer-aided design and manufacture, pneumatics, sensors and systems electronics.

But first there is a more primitive engineering problem to solve: how to open the window. It's still early spring, but the bus is stifling because someone forgot about global warming and turned the heating on.

Danielle Colairo, 14, and Alana Byrd, 13, arrange a supply of fresh air with the judicious use of applied force. Then they return to their CADCAM project. The aim is to engrave a nameplate using a milling machine connected to a computer. Clearly the major decision is what to engrave. Danielle takes the plunge, the computer is set up, and 40 minutes of concentration later, "MAN UTD RULE" is cut into a piece of blue plastic.

All the activities on the bus connect with technology familiar to the girls. There is a miniature greenhouse project which lets them use sensors to control the ventilation, heating and watering. And there is the WISE disco, currently preoccupying Leigh-Anne and Julie. They persevere with trying to get the wave on the oscilloscope to react to what they are doing on the circuit board. Even when one of them announces "now nothing works", they don't seem too disheartened.

Watching them is Andrew Tate, deputy director of science and industry and responsible for the bus being at La Retraite. He remarks on how "focused" the girls are, and he's right. The bus is hot, unfamiliar and crowded with teachers and engineering role models. Some of the activities are very challenging while one or two don't work as well as they should. But the girls are concentrating - and clearly enjoying themselves - and their one-and-a-half hour session passes before you can say "non-inverting amplifier".

Andrew, a chartered engineer who went into teaching fairly recently, started a WISE programme at his previous school. He left just as it was beginning to show results and decided to carry on the work at La Retraite.

A 1996 evaluation of the buses' work, carried out by Beta Technology, found they "had an important influence on the career direction of girls and women participating in the scheme, with 19 per cent of those interviewed being totally or significantly influenced by the vehicles".

Well, by my calculations, 19 per cent of the 275,000 girls who have been on a WISE bus equals 52,250 possible new women engineers and scientists. Those Underground tunnels are going to get pretty crowded.

The WISE buses are maintained by Nottingham Trent University. For more information, contact Joyce Bullimore, co-ordinator of the programme,tel: 0115 848 2101.

Technology requested pic Friday of Gladiators, pref Rhino and Falcon

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