Mass. — Leah French is a woman for all seasons. At 19, she has enjoyed her first year at Wellesley as a member of the Shakespeare Society, a campus organization that produces the bard’s plays throughout the school year. The thespian in her, though, has recently been eclipsed by the engineering wizard that also lives in the heart of this Cambridge, Mass., resident.
Last summer, she signed up for the second season of “Design Squad,” a children’s reality show that showcases students with engineering talents, thinking she would gain some film and performing experience. She ended up $10,000 richer and the first woman to win the engineering contest.
“If I had two lives, engineering would be one of them,” French told the local Wellesley Townsman newspaper about the experience. “It’s kind of like a fantasy idea. The show brought back a lot of my creativity.”
“Design Squad,” under Boston’s PBS channel WGBH, is a 13-episode reality TV show featuring students who compete with one another as they build a different contraption each week, ranging from barbecue grills to go-karts. Each contestant collects points from each challenge that their teams win. After garnering the most points in the show’s finale, French took home the $10,000 scholarship money from Intel.
A Wellesley student has starred in each of the first two seasons of the show. Natasha Sivananjaiah of Leominster, Mass., now a sophomore at Wellesley, became involved with "Design Squad" at its earliest stages of development in late 2005.
"I have always had a strong background in math and science and it wasn't until recently that I decided to get a liberal arts education," said Sivananjaiah at the time. "Even though I have made up my mind to go to law school, the analytical skills you learn from engineering will help you in any field."
“’Design Squad’ promotes diversity for the engineering field, choosing an even number of male and female contestants,” French told the Townsman, adding that she takes pride in winning a competition in a field so heavily populated by men.
“Throughout the summer, I was thinking it would be great to win as a woman,” she said. “I felt it was important because a boy won last year, and now more than ever, there are more women involved in the sciences. I felt like I became a kind of role model in the end.”
At Wellesley, French is majoring in history and anthropology, but says engineering has been a passion since childhood days, when she and her father built an eight-walled treehouse and one of her favorite pastimes was making cities from Lego building blocks.
“Design Squad” began shooting a year ago in June, with filming extending throughout the summer and ending just before she began her first year at Wellesley. French spent eight hours a day in front the camera every day.
Marisa Wolsky, “Design Squad” executive producer and founder, said French won because of her team-above-all mindset.
“Leah was very mature, and an incredibly good team player,” Wolsky said. “All of the kids are smart, but Leah really showed initiative.”
The show’s producers hope to focus young people on both the fun and value of an engineering career and the importance of diversity in the field.
“Our country is facing a shortage of engineers,” Wolsky said. “For our contestants, we look for varied ethnicity, gender and kids who are smart and passionate about engineering.”
French’s decision to attend Wellesley offers her the chance to meld her various interests. Wellesley offers a course, “Introduction to Engineering Science,” aimed at encouraging young women to pursue a career in the field. It’s part of a program that connects Wellesley students with opportunities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering – and beyond.
Just like in “Design Squad,” Wellesley students work in teams on projects that incorporate basic engineering principles and use modern tools and techniques that cut across many engineering disciplines.
“The engineers of the future will need to combine their technical skills with the ability to communicate effectively and with an awareness of the social contexts of their projects,” said engineering program organizer Theodore Ducas, professor of physics. “I believe our Wellesley students who graduate with a science major and an engineering complement will be in an especially good position to make significant positive contributions to society.”
Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries. For more information, go to www.wellesley.edu.
Photo credits: Anthony Tieuli; WGBH Boston; Helen Tsai.