Engineering a unique week


Submerged underwater, a robot built out of PVC pipes snaked back and forth near some foam “sea sponges.”

Next to the small wading pool, 11-year-old Nailah Lewis intently worked a set of controls on top of a wired plastic box. Her electrical engineering experiment had entered its final testing phase.

The task: Design a tool to pick up objects underwater.

Around the pool, a group of young girls leaned over the edge, dangling their hands in the water and shouting encouragement. Nailah’s 8-year-old sister, Ayailah, called out: “Come on, Ni Ni!”


Watching proudly nearby with a camera in hand was Nailah’s mother, Dana Lewis, 39, who is determined to see her both young daughters go to college.

She found a positive motivating force in a new Cal State Long Beach program.

The program, Engineering Girls -- It Takes a Village, is unusual in its focus on recruiting young girls, ages 9 to 15, from displaced families. Over the last four months, school officials worked with the Century Villages at Cabrillo, a transitional housing community, to recruit girls and bring them to the university in August for one week of engineering workshops.

Officials said that the program, which began Aug. 5 and ended Sunday, was specifically designed for girls because the engineering field is dominated by men. But coordinators also aimed to expose an underrepresented community with limited opportunities in science, math and engineering.

It came along with a full taste of college life, with the girls sleeping in the dorms and eating three all-you-can-eat meals a day.

Of the 29 girls who participated, 25 came from homeless families. All were African American, and most lived in single-parent homes. Three were being raised by their grandparents.

“A lot of these girls are underprivileged, so an experience like this not only changes and impacts their lives, but re-creates their future,” said Lewis, who was one of several women who accompanied their daughters and participated in the program. Lewis moved into the Villages with her mother and two daughters when it opened five years ago.

The program included 13 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers, who took part in the workshops, and eight female Cal State Long Beach students, who volunteered as resident assistants and group leaders. Faculty ran workshops, with activities that included testing out laparoscopic surgery equipment, using Play-Doh to create electrical circuits, and making airplane wings out of Styrofoam plates.

The week had a rough start -- some girls were reluctant to participate, and there was some bickering and teasing. After being made fun of Monday night for not being able to do “the Wobble” hip-hop dance correctly, Nailah wanted to pack up and go home.

But the tightly packed schedule of workshops, meals and teamwork-oriented activities -- including a visit to the Columbia Memorial Space Center -- tied the group together more closely as the week went on.

After just three days, many girls began chirping excitedly about becoming engineers.

Lelani Avilez, 12, said she wants to be an aerospace engineer. Maylaun Edwards, 11, and Skyy Sheppard, 11, both want to be chemical engineers.

Two days after the program started, 10-year-old Iyania Miller told her mother, Cynthia Marfizo, for the first time: “I want to go to college.”

For mother and daughter, the Cal State Long Beach dorm room was roughly the size of their room at the Catholic Charities shelter. The shelter room, which they share with Marfizo’s husband and son, includes a kitchenette, a table, two beds and a bathroom.

The family became homeless in May, Marfizo said. The buffet-style meals in the Cal State Long Beach dining hall, three times a day, were the best she and Iyania have eaten in months, she said.

Marfizo found two jobs in June, helping ease financial straits. But her low credit score has made it difficult to qualify as a renter.

Meanwhile, Iyania has struggled with moving from place to place, especially having to leave new friends.

By the end of the week, Marfizo saw a change in her daughter.

“It’s giving her hope,” she said. “She’s not saying it to me verbally, but you can see it.”

For Lily Gossage, director of the Women in Engineering Outreach Program at Cal State Long Beach, the program was rewarding, as well as a massive logistical challenge.

Usually, children are identified for academic programs through school counselors. In this case, Gossage had to talk directly to parents to identify girls with strengths in science or math.

Simply tracking people down proved difficult. Phone numbers changed every few weeks, or prepaid phone cards expired. On emergency contact forms, parents listed the more reliable contacts of supervisors or family friends.

On Friday, just three days before the start of the program, Gossage made a last-minute visit to hand-deliver waivers to parents. In the end, 15 girls who signed up could not be found.

“Four months wasn’t enough time,” Gossage said. She plans to run the program again next summer, incorporating lessons learned.

Last week was the first time the girls have lived on a college campus and their first real exposure to the vast world of engineering.

Nailah, soft-spoken and sensitive, loves science and gets straight A’s in school. She said she’s wanted to be an engineer since the second grade. But the program made her feel better about her career choice.

“At first I was so confused, but now I think I want to be a chemical engineer,” Nailah said.

On Thursday at Long Beach City College, which partnered with Cal State Long Beach to fund the program, she kept her focus in a noisy classroom to build a part for her robot out of PVC pipes.

Outside the classroom, Scott Fraser, a professor in electrical technology, attached Nailah’s hooklike part to an underwater vehicle and slipped the robot into the wading pool. He handed the controls to Nailah.

For what felt like a long time, Nailah inched the robot around the pool, twisting the device back and forth.

Then, suddenly, success -- the robot rose to the surface with one of the “sea sponges” dangling off the edge of Nailah’s addition.

Everyone standing around the pool broke into cheers and applause. A relieved smile spread across Nailah’s face.

Her mom walked over and gave her a high five.