Girls meet ‘the science of better’

IEOR professor and alum Rhonda Righter works with students at the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland. ABBY COHN PHOTOIEOR professor and alum Rhonda Righter works with students at the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland. (Photo by Abby Cohn.)Many of us ponder the complexity and unpredictability of everyday life. Industrial engineering professor Rhonda Righter (M.S.’82, Ph.D.’86 IEOR) makes sense of it. She applies sophisticated mathematical models to such intricate challenges as improving the efficiency of an auto manufacturing plant, triaging casualties after a natural disaster or even shortening the lines at Disneyland.

Most recently, Righter, the immediate past chair of Berkeley Engineering’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (IEOR), tackled a completely different assignment: serving as a volunteer role model to 35 middle-school girls.

Visiting an after-school science enrichment program called Techbridge, Righter described her field and how she chose it to a group of students at Oakland’s American Indian Public Charter School. Part instructional and part pep talk, her presentation was intended to introduce the girls to engineering with the hope that they will one day be inspired to pursue studies and careers in it or a related field.

“Industrial engineering is all about making things better,” Righter explained. “We’re like detectives who solve puzzles.” Righter said she is so fond of these mental gymnastics that she sometimes can’t believe she’s paid to perform them—often in a café with a laptop and a warm drink.

Righter specializes in stochastic (or random) modeling and optimization. And while she has two daughters of her own, the notion of describing such abstract-sounding concepts to a classroom of adolescents was unfamiliar turf. 

“I’m always saying more girls should be going into these fields, so I decided to put my money where my mouth is,” said Righter. Since stepping down as department chair this past summer, she decided the time was right to answer a Techbridge call for volunteers. This year, the Oakland-based program will expose more than 500 girls throughout the East Bay and South Bay to technology, science and engineering through a variety of classes, mentor presentations and other activities. Some 20 Berkeley students and alumni have signed on as volunteers.

Donning her teaching cap—albeit to a younger audience than usual—Righter gave the girls hands-on exercises to illustrate how industrial engineers approach problems. One activity challenged the students to draw the fewest number of straight lines through a grid of nine dots laid out in three rows. (Hint: The puzzle encourages outside-the-box thinking.) 

“I’m always saying more girls should be going into these fields, so I decided to put my money where my mouth is,” says Righter. ABBY COHN PHOTO“I’m always saying more girls should be going into these fields, so I decided to put my money where my mouth is,” says Righter. (Photo by Abby Cohn.)“Industrial engineering is probably the most mathematical of all the engineering fields,” she explained. The field, Righter noted, also has a social element since industrial engineers meet with clients to gather information and assess their needs. The specialty looks at big systems, analyzing, for instance, a factory’s overall performance and its supply chain rather than the operation of a particular machine.

Righter, who grew up in Washington, D.C., told the girls that her journey to engineering was fueled by a childhood love of math. Disregarding her father’s suggestion that she become an executive secretary, she double-majored in applied mathematics and business administration at Carnegie Mellon. 

After spending a year conducting long-term forecasting for Bell Labs in New Jersey, Righter headed to Berkeley for graduate school. “I really liked math but I wanted to do something real and practical and concrete,” she told the girls.

Though she gave the students an abbreviated biography, Righter spent 15 years teaching statistics and operations management at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business before joining Berkeley’s IEOR faculty in 2003.

At Berkeley, her research concentrates on manufacturing and telecommunications systems. She explores the randomness in those systems, measures variability and tries to optimize performance through better decision-making. Among her recent studies, Righter has examined the benefit of providing more options to customers using call centers and has investigated the best triage approaches for emergency medical providers coping with victims of a mass catastrophe.

The recipient of multiple honors, Righter was awarded back-to-back IBM Faculty Awards and was named IEOR Teacher of the Year in 2009-10. 

After hearing Righter’s presentation, seventh-grader Camoni Randolph thought industrial engineering sounded interesting. “I like creating stuff,” said the 13-year-old. Compared to the more traditional disciplines of civil and mechanical engineering, IEOR “is a little different,” she correctly observed.

As might be expected from an expert in a field sometimes called “the science of better,” Righter gave a thoughtful assessment of her first Techbridge appearance. “I think it went well, but I have ideas for changes for the next time,” she said.

Techbridge is always seeking passionate, dynamic role models to inspire girls in science, technology, or engineering.  If you are interested in volunteering with Techbridge as a role model, go to http://www.techbridgegirls.org/RoleModels.aspx to find out more.