Equal engineers

Joyee Chan

Girls want to change the gender balance in science

Joyee Chan |

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Professor Yeung King-lun (top) and the students: (front row from left) Dorothy Leung, April Sin Ga-foon, Sharon Wong Ho-ting, Valerie Ng Juen-yuen, and Kit Kan Ying-hei; (second row from left) Cathy Ho Wing-sze, Wincy Lui, and Tse Yan-tung.
Henry Ford created the assembly line approach to building cars. Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for the first telephone. William Boeing founded the aeroplane giant. It seems most of the big-name engineers have been men - so far.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology wants to break that tradition by getting teenage girls interested in the field.

Last week, eight science-loving girls completed a new month-long summer programme at the university's engineering school. Currently, women make up only one-third of its population.

The girls will all start Form 3 next month, and plan to study science at HKDSE level.

"We thought engineers worked only on construction sites, building canals, power stations or railways," says Tse Yan-tung from Diocesan Girls' School. "In fact, their expertise is required in fields from hospitals and water treatment plants to the design of electronics. And it can be an office job."

The girls learned, for example, that engineering is also used in anti-pollution technology, touring a facility which uses absorption to filter heavy metals, and photocatalysis to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Professor Yeung King-lun, the programme leader and an expert in chemical and bio-molecular engineering, thinks that given the chance, girls have an edge over boys in science because they tend to be more meticulous.

During the programme, the girls learned how to identify tiny organisms such as nanotubes, E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus under a microscope; and how to collect samples from home using agar plates and cotton buds, and then nurture them in the laboratory.

They examined the dog's cage at one student's home and found it was was filthy. "Usually we can estimate the amount of bacteria by counting under a microscope, but the amount collected in my pet's pen was uncountable," said Wincy Lui Lok-yiu, who attends St Mary's Canossian College.

Other high-bacteria places in the home are the fridge, shoe cabinet, the bottom of the litter bin and dishwashing sponge, the group say. Surprisingly, the university's bathroom doors and floors were free of bacteria, as they are often cleaned.

The girls applied their new knowledge when they visited Queen Elizabeth Hospital, which co-operated with HKUST on a project to develop "Smart Anti-Microbial Surface Coating".

The environmentally friendly substance, when sprayed onto windows, concrete floors, cloth and other surfaces at hospitals, can kill microbes and stop infection from spreading. The effect lasts for 30 days.

The eight saw how professionals collected samples from patients in the orthopaedic ward and visited the bacteriology lab, where testing is conducted. It's usually off-limits to outsiders.

"It's amazing to know how engineering can be related to chemistry and biology," says Dorothy Leung Hei-tung, who studies at SKH Tsang Shiu Tim Secondary School, "and can be put to practical use to benefit the sick."

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