It’s no secret that women are severely underrepresented in STEM fields, especially engineering. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, women comprise less than 20% of undergraduate engineering majors nationwide. Given that diversity in the workplace is essential to harness creativity, explore different perspectives, and succeed in a globally competitive environment, it would behoove educators to point girls toward a STEM path at an early age. Fun and interesting outreach activities–such as the recent Introduce a Girl to Engineering national campaign–do just that
There’s a lot of research on why girls study certain fields, key factors being confidence, motivation, and interest. In general, girls lack confidence in math and science starting at an early age. This isn’t because they perform poorly in comparison to boys; in fact in many cases, girls outperform boys in math and science. The problem is their self-perception. Girls feel they are only good at a subject in which they easily get straight A’s, whereas a boy has lower expectations of what is “good.” It’s important to constantly encourage and support girls in math and science, therefore immediately rewarding good work is part of establishing a firm foundation.
Girls also are motivated by and interested in different things. It’s important to keep this in mind when designing STEM activities so that girls can see how their interests fit into the field. For example, girls and other under-represented populations are highly motivated by careers and activities that contribute to society, help improve someone’s life, or better the world. They are much less motivated by competition and money.
The week of February 17-23 was National Engineer’s Week, and February 21 kicked off the national campaign challenging groups, individuals, and organizations to Introduce a Girl to Engineering. At St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, we hosted an event targeted at pre-school through 7th graders and had an astonishing turnout of 252 girls from 63 different schools. The event was an “open house” style and completely free. Similar to a STEM carnival, it was organized with eight different booths of interesting, hands-on engineering and science activities. Girls were able to visit each booth at their own pace to complete the activities with the help of volunteers.
The evening was very successful, and everyone (students and parents!) left with smiles and excitement from their night of exploring engineering and science. Much of this success was because the entire event was designed around girls. The activities were interesting to them (making lip gloss, designing surgical instruments) or geared toward their intrinsically helpful nature (when showing how soap can power a cardboard boat, the question was posed about how this could lead to “greener” power). In addition, girls were awarded stickers at each activity, a participation certificate, and prizes for completing activities. And to top it all off, there were no boys allowed! This really let the girls explore science and engineering without any pressure or competition.
Getting young women interested in engineering and science at an early age is essential to guiding them into STEM careers. Take on the challenge—show the FUN and INTERESTING side of engineering to as many girls as you can!
By Jodi Prosise, PhD
Assistant Professor of Engineering
St. Ambrose University