Women make up 57% of those completing bachelor’s degrees, yet there is still a huge gender gap in women entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Just 20% of engineering bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women, and when it comes to the workforce, the numbers are even bleaker: Only 13% of engineers are women, according to Maxine Fontaine, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. Through outreach to girls and young women, Fontaine is hoping to change these numbers.
Stevens hosted its sixth annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering! Day for Brensinger Elementary school on February 23, 2021. This celebrated day is part of a national movement to engage young women in engineering, which has traditionally been a male-dominated field. Fontaine has been bringing the event to middle school girls at Brensinger since 2017, hoping to inspire a new generation of engineers. Each year, the event has been met with open arms by students and faculty at both Brensinger and Stevens.
“Janeen Maniscalco is the assistant principal at Brensinger Elementary and an incredibly enthusiastic advocate for STEM, especially women in STEM,” said Fontaine. “She wanted to host a Girl Day event at her school, so she contacted our department looking for Stevens faculty who might be willing to speak to her girls about engineering. I was more than happy to volunteer, and it became an annual event!”
Usually the event is held in an auditorium where about 150 girls in grades sixth through eighth participate, while Stevens faculty and student volunteers show physical demonstrations and projects. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event moved to a virtual platform, and Fontaine’s team used polls on Zoom to engage the girls.
“We asked the students what percentage of engineers are women,” said Fontaine. “The majority of them thought that 45-60% of engineers were women! This was surprising to me, but also encouraging as they presumably saw women as equally qualified as men to be in the field of engineering. In actuality, only 13% of engineers in the workforce are women.”
Participating girls responded to this statistic with disappointment and determination to change these numbers.
Another poll activity asked the girls to look at photographs of people and guess which ones were engineers. As it turned out, everyone portrayed was a STEM professional.
Twelve Stevens students shared their engineering journeys with the Brensinger students, speaking about how they entered engineering, their experiences so far, and projects that they have taken on. Fontaine and Annie Zhang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, then spoke about their own areas of interest and research. The event concluded with a Q&A session.
“The students and teachers were quite engaged, especially for the poll activities, which sparked a lively discussion about diversity in engineering,” said Fontaine, who hopes to encourage more girls to pursue engineering and increase diversity in the field. “By seeing real female faculty and students in engineering, I hope that they will be able to see themselves as future engineers as well,” she added.
Participating Stevens students were Lauren Cunniff ‘22, Sara Deuidicibus ‘24, Nicole Dominguez ‘22, Morgan Gruskin ‘21, Jessica Guerrero ‘25, Emily Kovelesky ‘22, Joyce Lin ‘24, Trinity Lundemo ‘23, Darlene Martinez ‘24, Sydney Mellage ‘23, Brynne Pergolini ‘22, and Aya Zaatreh ‘25.