"You don’t have to be a guy wearing Coke bottle glasses and a pocket protector working on cars or HVAC systems in a stuffy office to be an engineer–you don’t even have to be good at math!"
That is the surprising message Jennifer Field, mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate at Stevens Institute of Technology, shared with more than 200 fifth- to eighth-grade girls at Brensinger Elementary School in Jersey City during Stevens’ third annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering! day program on February 22.
The event is designed to help young women get comfortable with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and encourage them to consider STEM careers as vibrant, viable options.
"You can be an engineer, an artist, a writer, a musician…you can be creative and bring your hobbies into your STEM career," said Field. She participated in the two-hour Brensinger presentation with fellow Stevens students Marianna Fleming, Ellysa Lamperti, Sara Poor and Emily Sneddon; Stevens alumnae Gianna Ortiz and Yiwen Xi; and Maxine Fontaine, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens.
"Kids tend to picture themselves in fields where they see themselves represented," Fontaine told Stevens. "STEM fields are still male-dominated, and a lot of the girls at Brensinger don’t have engineering role models, male or female. There’s a stigma that to be an engineer, you have to be brilliant at STEM skills and wealthy, and that failure is likely. But the truth is, if you want to do it and you work hard, you can absolutely make it as an engineer."
"We are thankful to continue our partnership that extends beyond 'Introduce a Girl to Engineering!' day," added assistant principal and Stevens alumna Janeen Maniscalco. "Our students look forward to these visits; they can’t wait to hear what the student engineers are going to share. Our girls especially enjoy trying out the tech toys the Stevens group brings. They also enjoy asking questions, particularly around the challenge of being accepted as a female engineer. These conversations are important to have with young girls interested in pursuing an education in STEM, and I am happy to be a part of the conversation."
The program kicked off with an interactive discussion about what an engineering career involves, followed by introductions from the past and present Stevens students, who shared how they chose engineering as their profession.
"When I was younger, I wanted to be an astronaut, or a chef–I didn’t know what engineering was," said Ortiz, who is completing her final year of Stevens’ five-year mechanical engineering program. "I liked my honors math and science classes, and when the Stevens summer precollege program recruited at my high school, I was intrigued enough to give it a try. I loved the challenge, and the opportunity to question everything, and now I get to work on cool things like theater design. My family instilled in me the idea that I could do anything, and especially as a Latina, I love reaching out to others to help them confidently keep going and pursue their dreams."
Beauty of the Beest
Captivating images and engaging demonstrations introduced the young girls to 3D printing, solar-powered boats, sticky polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) used to for cell cultures, hexagon bugs and other toys that moved in surprising ways, and a video featuring majestic, wind-powered, plastic tube sculptures known as strandbeests ("beach animals," in Dutch) that wander the sand with remarkably lifelike motion.
"Those huge, moving pieces of art impressed even the clearly 'cool' girls," Fontaine told Stevens. "The video and in-person demonstrations truly drove home the diversity of traditional and non-traditional options available to girls who study STEM fields."
During the closing Q&A session, the younger students asked the Stevens representatives about their lives and their studies.
"We were all in their shoes at some point," Fontaine told Stevens. "I remember when students from the University of Texas came to my school and talked to us about engineering, and that set me on the path I’m on today. We are excited to continue that tradition, break the stereotypes for girls who otherwise wouldn’t think they could be engineers, and inspire the next generation to join us in the diverse careers we love."
From the students’ enthusiastic feedback, it seems the Stevens representatives achieved their goal. "You have really boosted my confidence and interested me in engineering, science, math, and all of the rest," wrote one of the many fifth-grade girls who sent heartfelt thank-you letters to Stevens. "Thanks again for doing the presentation and showing me I shouldn’t be held back!"