Research & Innovation

Profiles in Engineering: Introduce a Girl to Engineering! Day Shines a Light on Career Journeys

Annual event engages young girls to spark their interest in engineering and help close the gender gap in the engineering field

Girl in engineering classroom

Gadgets, genes, stress and robots!

These were among the many terms displayed in a word cloud during a presentation at Stevens Institute of Technology’s 7th Annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering! Day, which took place virtually this year.

The words were responses from students at Brensinger Elementary in Jersey City to the question: “What do engineers do?”

Stevens mechanical engineering associate professor Maxine Fontaine, who asked the question, says that this is how many young girls often see engineering. While the responses were correct in that engineering is a type of career that covers a broad spectrum of subject matter across multiple industries, it reveals some misconceptions about engineering.

“Their main drive should be an interest in solving certain problems and making the world a better place,” said Fontaine.

A key aim of Introduce a Girl to Engineering! Day, part of a national movement to engage young women in engineering, is to counter these and other misconceptions about engineering to help close the gender gap in the engineering field. According to the Society of Women Engineers, only 13% of engineers in the workforce are women.

“What we like to do when we do these outreach events, is to tell students what engineering is, to show that it’s not some big scary discipline that is only for men and to bring women students and faculty to show them that there are women in the field, and that it is a possible path for them to take,” said Fontaine.

Engineering is not just math and science, it’s about problem-solving

Another misconception about engineering is that it is only about math and science.

Fontaine emphasizes that math and science are fundamental to engineering, but there’s more to engineering than that.

“I think the focus may be too heavy on math and the science part. Communication, creativity, curiosity, and teamwork are all very integral to the engineering experience as well,” Fontaine said.

According to Fontaine, the heavy emphasis on math can be intimidating for some students, especially if they don’t have a role model or someone they know who is involved in engineering. This is why a central theme of the event was that engineering is really about working together to solve problems that change the world.

“The math and the science comes with it in the sense that if you really want to solve a problem, if you really want to do something, you will make an effort to learn the math and the science. It’s not necessarily the other way around,” said Fontaine.

Role models share how they got into engineering

Hoping to inspire the next generation of problem solvers, Stevens faculty, including Fontaine and Stevens assistant professor in mechanical engineering, Shima Hajimirza, shared their path to becoming engineers.

For Hajimirza, her interest in engineering began when she was a child in Tehran, Iran.

“The reason I got interested in mechanical engineering was that when I was a kid in high school, when I was very young, my brother-in-law was a mechanical engineer and a professor at a university in Tehran,” she said.

Hajimirza often perused through her books and became fascinated with this image of a gear. “I was thinking, I would like to learn more about how gears work so I asked him if I could visit the mechanical engineering labs at the University and realized there were a lot of cool things,” she said.

Her interest only grew stronger as a college student in Pasadena, California and Austin, Texas. Today, Hajimirza is also the director of the Energy, Control, Optimization (ECO) lab at Stevens which is focused on designing solar cells by incorporating different nanoparticles in different shapes to discover the most efficient way to harvest energy from the sun.

For Fontaine, her interest in engineering began by fixing broken stuff around the house. This tinkering, together with her experience attending a “magnet” high school for math and science and an engineering day event at the University of Texas at Austin, set her on the path to a career in engineering. Fontaine’s primary interest area is biomechanics, studying how people move.

The event also featured a guest speaker: Teakia Sabb, senior cost manager for 35° North, a construction firm focused on life sciences and pharmaceutical facilities.

“Good afternoon and hello to our future,” she said as she began her virtual presentation. Sabb currently lives in North Carolina but can relate to the children of Brensinger Elementary as Jersey City is her hometown.

Sabb shared her experiences throughout her engineering career, including her work as an engineer in her current role. Sabb, whose engineering experience spans life science/pharmaceutical, construction, project management, cost estimating, and value engineering, shared how her volunteer experience has helped enrich her career in engineering.

Her volunteer experience includes working with Habitat for Humanity and curriculum lead of Raleigh North Carolina chapter of Black Girls Code, an organization focused on closing the opportunity gap in science, technology, engineering and math careers for Black women and girls.

Stevens students shared their journeys as well.

For Kayla Joseph ’22, a mechanical engineering student, her passion for comics was a primary influence in her decision to pursue a career in engineering.

“I love comics so much that the reason I became an engineer was simply because I wanted to build an Iron Man suit,” said Joseph, who is the Stevens ASME president. “The reason I came into engineering in the first place, it may seem silly, but it doesn’t take much to spark an interest,” she explained.

Joseph explained that Iron Man was someone that basically created his own superpower. “He built it. So, I wanted to do something like that and help people, not in terms of building my own superpower, but cool and interesting designs that may help people in the future,” she said.

Sydney Mellage ’23, a biomedical engineering student explained how she always loved to fix and build anything including furniture and even with Legos.

“I am interested in how a change in an athlete’s movements can increase performance or reduce injury,” she shared with the students.

Environmental engineering major Lauren Hiley ’24 volunteered at beach clubs during high school, being outdoors, and taking care of house plants ignited her interest in engineering early on.

“I enjoy things like puzzles, Legos, and problem-solving, which led to engineering,” she says. “I plan on studying and researching sustainability and solutions to marine problems.”

Ivy Robalino ’22, a mechanical engineering student arrived at Stevens as a chemical engineering major.

“I realized that I like physics more, so I switched my major,” she said, explaining that she started loving planes and aerospace and watching SpaceX launches live. “It makes sense because I love traveling and being on an airplane excites me,” said Robalino who has traveled to eight countries and visited fifteen states in the U.S. After graduating from Stevens, she plans on applying to graduate school to focus on aerospace engineering.

Two things sparked an engineering interest in Allie Canciani ’24, a mechanical engineering student.

The first is her love of sports. "I'm on the track team at Stevens, and I just find in everything I do there's a little bit of physics, like when I jump," said Canciani.

The other spark was volunteering. For example, she built a fence using rocks, sticks, and makeshift tools on a mission trip to Jamaica.

How can girls get started?

While many girls may not realize the extent to which they are underrepresented in STEM careers, Fontaine and volunteers are working to change that.

"I enjoyed having the opportunity to show students what other careers are out there and that there are so many different things that they can aspire to be when they grow up,” said Mellage, “I never had that introduction to STEM careers, especially not engineering until I was much older, but I want to continue to teach the younger generation that it is possible to be successful even in a male-dominated field."

Programs like Introduce a Girl to Engineering! Day aims to show girls that they can be part of the engineering field, too.

Fontaine explained that one of the program’s aims was to help students get information about what engineering is, recognizing some of the challenges that women face in engineering in the sense that they are very underrepresented.

“I’m not sure if the students were aware of how underrepresented women were in the engineering workforce, but this is changing,” she said.

Fontaine advises the girls to get gets hands-on. For example, learning to use CAD and a 3D printer is a great way to start. She also emphasizes studying math, science, writing and communication.

Additionally, she thinks programs such as Girls Who Code and pre-college programs such as Stevens ECOES (Exploring Career Options in Engineering and Science) are valuableresources. Girls should also consider entering competitions like FIRST Robotics, Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, and Future City Competition and join SWENEXT, a program for the Society of Women Engineers dedicated to young girls.