ANCHORAGE, Alaska — As president of her school's National Honor Society chapter, Mirror Lake Middle School eighth grader Catherine Goolsby is as sharp as they come.
"That's the top end," Mirror Lake career guide Colleen Hildebrandt said of the honor student.
But even one of the school's brightest minds said middle school classrooms can be a tough place for girls to get ahead.
"Sometimes you can feel so intimidated," Goolsby said.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology business and engineering graduate student Mary Anito said Goolsby's sentiments are common. Anito said studies have shown that girls stop asserting themselves in the classroom during adolescence.
"What they found is this is the age where kids start to disengage," she said.
Anito explained that social pressures often get in the way of girls wanting to study as hard as they should.
"They don't want to look like the nerd, they don't want to look like the smart girl," Anito said. "They want to look like the cool girl."
Nobody was worried about looking anything but smart on Tuesday, when Anito and MIT undergrad Iris Sheu visited two area middle schools to give a hands-on engineering presentation with a twist — no boys allowed.
Anito and Sheu are part of the MIT Women's Initiative, a partnership between the Cambridge, Mass. engineering powerhouse and private business that's designed to get more women into the engineering field.
"The goal is to get girls to do engineering, because there really aren't a lot of female engineers," Sheu said of the program, whose sponsors include GM, Xerox, ITA Software, Oracle, Creare, Akamai and the SAMPE Foundation.
Hildebrant is responsible for bringing the program to Anchorage. When she heard of the Women's Initiative, she jumped at the opportunity.
"I heard about it on a Friday, the application was due on Monday. So I spent the whole weekend writing this application," she said. "I figured the chances we'll get it are pretty small, so when we heard a couple months later that we got it, I thought, 'Yes! I can't believe MIT's going to come."
Anito and Sheu visited Mirror Lake and Gruening middle schools on the same day, part of their weeklong trek to all 10 middle schools in the Anchorage School District. To begin their two-hour program, the women first told the girls why engineering is important and what makes the field exciting.
"You can do everything in engineering," Anito said, explaining that engineers can solve problems ranging from everyday inconveniences — like fixing a car — to incredibly complex tasks like building skyscrapers.
After the pep talk, Anito and Sheu split the girls into teams and gave them a real-world engineering problem. With just a few items to choose from (pipe cleaners, tape, rubber bands, straws, paper, cardboard, paper clips, cups, popsicle sticks and clay), the girls were tasked with building the tallest, sturdiest structure they could. The teams were given a budget, and the items were assigned a cost (10 straws for $300, for example), with bonus points awarded for coming in under budget.
Then, the girls went to work.
First, the groups brainstormed what materials to buy. That settled, each team got to work constructing its imaginary skyscraper, cutting, pasting, pricking and pinning the materials into shape. The room became a hive of activity, with the girls debating the finer points of structural engineering and coordinating their strategies.
Goolsby's group put their money into designing from the ground up.
"The first thing that we did was pretty much the base," she said. "That's pretty much the foundation for everything — even in life."
After the structures were complete, Anito and Sheu put them through a variety of tests specific to Alaska. First, they dropped paper on top of the buildings to simulate heavy snow. Next, the women shook the desk the buildings sat on to test the structures' ability to withstand an earthquake.
Most stood up to both challenges.
"That was very impressive," Anito said.
Following the presentation, many of the girls peppered Anito and Sheu with questions about the engineering field. Sheu said that's the idea.
"Girls come up to us and say, 'I think I want to be an engineer now!'" she said. "That's cool."
Gruening seventh grader Laura Barber wore an MIT t-shirt to her school's presentation. Barber, who said she wants to study either computer or chemical engineering, said the Women's Initiative program only reinforced her desire to someday attend the school.
"I love MIT. I've wanted to go there for a long time," she said. "I love science."
Catherine Goolsby said the girls-only format helped her and her classmates let down their hair more than they might during a "normal" class period.
"It was really nice to have this be an all-girls thing and kind of show girls are awesome," she said. "It was fantastic."
Watching his students dive enthusiastically into engineering, Gruening's proud principal Bobby Jefts couldn't help but smile as he clicked off picture after picture of the event.
"These girls are going to be building our houses in 20 years," he said.