A problem is also an opportunity. Hokey? Sure, but often enough it's true. On a recent Friday afternoon four women worked with students...

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A problem is also an opportunity. Hokey? Sure, but often enough it’s true.

On a recent Friday afternoon four women worked with students at Denny Middle School in West Seattle.The problem in search of a solution that afternoon was the shortage of engineers in the U.S.

Laura Vertatschitsch and Kelly Clark, two University of Washington engineering graduate students, told the kids engineering is problem solving. That’s what we all spend most of our lives doing. It’s certainly what the women were doing.

How do engineers solve a problem?

They do some research, brainstorm ideas, design something, make a model and test it. Observe what happens, then start redesigning. Repeat until it’s right.

The women at Denny are part of two programs trying to solve subsets of the engineering-shortage problem: how to get girls and black and Latino students interested.

Eve Riskin, a UW professor of electrical engineering and associate dean of academic affairs, started one of the programs, the University of Washington Women’s Initiative.

Ten UW women engineering students make presentations to middle- and high-school girls to dispel stereotypes (it’s not just for nerdy guys) and show how engineering is relevant to people’s lives.

It’s a new program. Riskin borrowed the idea from another university and tinkered with it to make it work here.

Like an engineering project, it’s subject to revision as needed.

The two grad students told the kids at Denny (two boys and seven girls) that engineers design everything from shoes to cellphones to hair dryers, all of which grew from a problem that needed to be solved.

They paired students up for a hands-on bridge-building exercise. Projects vary depending on what kind of engineers are leading the session.

The kids looked droopy during the presentation but got talkative as they worked. They crowded around each desk as Clark added weights to test the finished bridges, and counted with her, 10, 11, 12. … They gasped when a bridge swayed and cheered and laughed as their cardboard-and-string bridges proved strong enough for even 15 weights.

The UW students visit schools, but the other program stays with a group of kids for 10 weeks at a time.

That program, SmartGirls, is run by Nancy Ruzycki, who left a job as a research scientist to teach science at Chief Sealth High School.

One of the SmartGirls, Hamda Yusuf, an eighth-grader, told me afterward she liked learning about engineering. “I might be rethinking what I want to do in college…. “

Seventh-grader Karla Mejia Fuentes said she enjoyed “the stuff you get to experience … I really liked building everything.”

The women feel good about what they’re doing, but some of the payback is more concrete.

Clark discovered she likes doing outreach work and Vertatschitsch wants to teach, so this is good practice.

They’re turning problems into opportunities.

Jerry Large’s column appears

Monday and Thursday.

Reach him at 206-464-3346

or jlarge@seattletimes.com.