Campus & Community

Women in STEM Can 'Dream Big. Be Different. Have Fun.'

Fourth-annual Stevens Institute of Technology Introduce a Girl to Engineering! day encourages students to consider STEM careers

THINKING LIKE AN ENGINEER:
THINKING LIKE AN ENGINEER: "STEM education prepares you to be creative and resourceful in so many different fields," said Jen Field (second from right). (from left) Stevens professor Maxine Fontaine, and students MariaCristina Todaro and Emily Kovelsky.

If you don't know about the remarkable diversity of careers available to you, you might end up counting mosquitoes when you'd rather be creating robots.

That's what almost happened to Stevens Institute of Technology mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate Jen Field, one of seven female students and professors who led Stevens' fourth-annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering! day program at Brensinger Elementary School in Jersey City on February 21.

"My dad works in engineering, but although I like building things and taking things apart to fix them – even if they're fully functional! – I never considered engineering until a counselor suggested it might be an interesting option for me," Field recalls. "I had planned to be a marine biologist who saves the manatees and whales and swims with the dolphins, but then someone told me that I might be doing a lot of water sampling and testing for mosquitoes, and I realized that engineering did make more sense for me. Our Introduce a Girl to Engineering! event gives us the opportunity to connect with the students and change cultural assumptions to prove that STEM careers also don't have to be gendered. It's my favorite outreach."

It was a favorite for quite a few of the more than 200 fifth- to eighth-grade girls who attended as well, as some of their thank-you notes demonstrate:

"Thank you so much for teaching us about engineering and how we can reach our goals no matter what gender we are. You girls are all really inspiring."

"Little girls can't do that much, but thanks to you, I feel like I can do anything."

“I have been present in the yearly assembly since it has started and every year a new idea is introduced to me about engineering.”

"Thank you for taking your time just to show us what engineering is and how it feels to be an engineer. Maybe I'll be an engineer in my future."

"You all inspire me. I want to grow up to be like all of you."

Weaving it All Together

Maxine Fontaine
Maxine Fontaine. CREDIT: Jeff Vock

The event kicked off with presentations from Maxine Fontaine, Stevens assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who recalled how a high school visit from University of Texas engineering students inspired her career and her interest in biomechanics, and Leslie Brunell, Stevens teaching professor of civil engineering, who discussed her work in water resources. Field, along with fellow Stevens students Sarah Dollard, Alexis Paolella, Emily Kovelesky and MariaCristina Todaro, talked about their journey to the world of STEM. They also discussed what engineering is, and just some of the many types of engineering. Later in the program, the girls were able to participate in a Q&A with their Stevens guests.

Leslie Brunell
Leslie Brunell. CREDIT: Jeff Vock

But in-between, they enjoyed some undeniably cool props.

Field used a woven piece of fabric–created on a 19th century loom she helped get back to working order–to illustrate the diversity of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

"A lot of people think of engineering as computers, but it's all sorts of technologies, and in the 1880s, the loom was a technology that improved everyone's life, and it was most often used by women," Field noted. "In my hometown, my mom is the curator for the Waretown Historical Society museum, and I volunteer there. We set up the loom as an interactive exhibit so visitors can weave themselves. It's just one small way that STEM brings people together."

Field also brought robots she has designed, and Brensinger's three division-winning FIRST LEGO® robotics competition team captains – all girls – were invited to operate the robots to play soccer. The broader group also got to play with Fontaine's popular HEXBUG robotic toys.

The event admittedly involved a lot of entertainment, but Introduce a Girl to Engineering! is not all fun and games.

"Our annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering assembly has become one of our highly anticipated programs," said assistant principal Janeen Maniscalco, also a Stevens alumna. "The girls feel special and inspired after hearing the stories about overcoming obstacles in the male-dominated STEM fields, and they love seeing live demos and participating in the action. I am thrilled to continue to build the esteem of our young female engineers and increase our STEM continuum through our partnership with Stevens and professor Fontaine."

"Unless young girls see female role models in their community working in STEM careers, they won't think about those fields as careers for themselves," Fontaine noted. "It's in the best interest of society to have diversity in all fields, which is why we bring female Stevens students to Brensinger Elementary every year: not only so they can learn more about STEM careers, but also so they can see first-hand that successful females exist in those careers."

"Even if the Brensinger girls know about STEM careers, a lot of them think they have to go far away to study STEM, and they don't think that's possible," Fields added. "But Stevens is essentially in their backyard, and it's a great school with great opportunities. I wish I'd had more opportunities to explore STEM when I was younger, and it's something I hope that, through this and other outreach activities, I can teach the next generation about the value of STEM careers – and a Stevens education!"

girl playing with Jenga blocks
Even something as simple as playing with Jenga bricks can help a girl think like an engineer, according to Field: "We want these girls to see that it's cool that STEM education prepares you to be creative and resourceful in so many different fields, from working on buildings or cars or robots, to renewable energy, pharmaceuticals and even textiles. You can take what you know, and create something new." CREDIT: Design_Miss_C, Pixabay.