“I learned that just cause I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t do things guys could do.”
Those are the words of a student at Brensinger Elementary in Jersey City. They were written in response to a visit from Stevens Institute of Technology professors Maxine Fontaine and Stephanie Lee, Stevens students Cassie Nicholas, Jovanna Manzari, Gianna Ortiz and Sara Poor, and Stevens alumna Carly LaGrotta on February 23. The reason? Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. The result? Inspiring an audience of almost 200 diverse girls.
Stevens’ engineers couldn’t be happier.
“I celebrate “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” to encourage girls who are interested to pursue engineering, and to show them that engineering is not only for boys,” Fontaine told Stevens. “I knew that I liked doing this type of thing but I didn’t know it was called engineering. I didn’t know such a job existed... until students visited my high school.”
Lee was equally motivated to speak to these girls, as she told Stevens. “I’ve seen a lot of girls shy away from STEM fields, just from preconceived notions or not knowing enough,” Lee said. “I’ve noticed girls tend to not think they're as good at math or shy away from those types of areas for a lot of societal reasons. I just want to encourage them.”
The Brensinger girls did not shy away. They were curious about the Stevens’ engineers demos of their different specialties, from the mechanics of motion and 3D printing to chemical engineering and building a canoe from scratch. They were excited to play with moldable plastic. They connected with the Stevens’ engineers stories about how they got into engineering. And they were hands-on with the demos -- especially professor Lee’s.
"She brought a clean suit with her and put a kid in it,” Fontaine explained. It was a hit with everyone, especially Lee. “I wanted to show them: This is what a woman engineer can look like,” Lee said. “And they loved it. I loved it!”
The best part of the event? Q&A. “My favorite part was seeing what questions the girls had,” Ortiz told Stevens. “They asked very insightful questions.” “The questions were interesting,” Fontaine said. “Very philosophical.” The first question was about the biggest challenges they faced as females in a male-dominated field -- and how they dealt with discrimination. “Everyone had a story,” Fontaine said, “which was sad. But it was also true.” And the girls could relate. “It was a little disheartening [to hear] it’s happening so early on,” Lee said, “especially when girls are outperforming boys in school. It should be the opposite.”
Thankfully, for all the talk of discrimination, there was much more encouragement. “My grandfather was an engineer,” Manzari shared. “He always inspired me to work hard, do what I love, and reach for my goals no matter what.”
“Especially as a Latina, I want to show girls that no matter what your background is you can achieve whatever you work towards and do not let anyone try and stop you,” Ortiz shared.
“It was such a great time,” said assistant principal and Stevens alumna Janeen Maniscalco. “I am so grateful to Stevens for all my wonderful experiences in the past and am just so happy to share them with my students.” Maniscalco is a STEM-focused assistant principal, introducing a 3D printer and an “escape the room” style engineering challenge to her students in addition to this event. “She wants her students to not be limited,” Lee said. “She’s awesome.”
Next year, Fontaine said, there will be more time for questions and answers. There will also be more small groups for demos -- and, hopefully, more Stevens students. “The undergrads have so much to offer,” Lee said, “They’re so relatable to these younger girls.”
If the opening quote from the Brensinger student is any indication, they’re already making an impact.