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Engineering conference designed to bring women into the field

March 16, 2017
Students from Our Lady of Lourdes High School work through an exercise during the Engineering Tomorrow Conference. The exercise called for the students to create an apparatus on a raft to turn saltwater into drinkable water. Clockwise, from back right: Mark Gambeski, Justina Sargios, Olivia Babb, Pearl Oldiges, and Catherine Gambeski, all 16 and juniors.
Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal

Huddled around a table, six 15-year-old girls were working to solve a hypothetical water crisis.

The Our Lady of Lourdes High School sophomores had been tasked with creating drinkable water out of salt water, as if travelers stranded on a deserted island. To do this, they heated up the water and stored it inside a tupperware container covered in plastic wrap, causing condensation to take effect.

Kanisha Bahierathan, 15, of Wappingers Falls, then used a rubber spatula to scrape away each droplet of clean water.

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“This is a lot harder than I thought,” she said Thursday in the school’s gymnasium. “I guess we take for granted purified water.”

“We've gotten to see,” team member Colleen Shea said, “how an engineer works.”

The fifth annual Engineering Tomorrow conference to be held at Our Lady of Lourdes provided students in advanced math and science classes with a full school day to engage with a host of engineers and engineering activities. This year’s topic was water, specifically creating clean water.

The nonprofit Engineering Tomorrow was founded in 2014 in an effort to give high school students, specifically women and minorities, an early look at a difficult and historically white male-dominated field, according to Executive Director Michael Legg.

There were students attending from Our Lady of Lourdes as well as John S. Burke High School, John A. Coleman High School and Albertus Magnus High School.

“When you look at the population of engineers,” Legg said, “roughly 85 percent are male, and there’s a very small minority part of that... so our focus is to attract females and minorities to engineering."

The way the organization is trying to diversify the field, he said, is by hosting one-day conferences at high schools like Our Lady Of Lourdes that present kids with real-life scenarios like a water crisis.

This year, the nonprofit recruited engineer volunteers from Xylem, a water technology provider with the tagline “let’s solve water.”

Monica Levy, a marketer for Xylem, a water technology provider, walks through an exercise with students at Our Lady of Lourdes High School during the Engineering Tomorrow Conference.
Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal

On one side of the gym, students learned about water desalination, the process of removing minerals like salt from water. On the other side, students learned about water reuse, which is removing sludge and dirt from water, as well as hypothesizing what it would take to do this on a massive scale.

For Sebastian Rutigliano, a physics and earth science teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes, it was a thrill to see — though he was a bit jealous.

“I wanted to play as well,” the 42-year-old Wappingers Falls resident said, laughing. “It definitely makes me excited to see how some of these really bright kids problem-solve, to see the thought processes behind it.”

Shea, of the Town of Poughkeepsie, said she appreciated the all-day conference for letting her get a closer look at the world of engineering, a field she one day hopes to work in.

When she grows up, she said she wants to be a biomedical engineer, working to improve the quality of life for paralyzed people. She already has one big goal — helping the paralyzed who are reliant on respirators be able to breathe without them.

Seeing the potential of engineering, she said, reaffirmed her aspirations.

“In this field,” she said, “people actually help people.”

Jack Howland:, 845-437-4870, Twitter: @jhowl04