Picture an engineer. Consider their basic physical characteristics.
Chances are, female isn’t one of them.
While the female workforce has grown rapidly in many professions over the last 20 years, the proportion of women in engineering remains at the same number it was in 1985 –15 percent. The presence of females in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers is just slightly higher at 25 percent.
When most people hear the word engineer, they envision a middle-aged male, likely with glasses and a tie. That’s a word association those at the forefront of the engineering industry are working unceasingly to change, partly by encouraging more young women to pursue math and science careers.
Retired Vice President of Engineering at Raytheon Lynn Mortensen said she believes the cause of these low, often stagnant numbers has less to do with lack of interest and more with misunderstandings, negative stereotypes and too few mentoring opportunities.
“It’s critical that young girls can see themselves in a STEM career without the geeky stereotype,” Mortensen said. “There are many different kinds of women in STEM. We have families. Some of us are into gymnastics and dance, some travel and some have other interests. We run the spectrum.”That’s exactly what she told the group of about 30 7-10th graders and their parents whom she spoke to as part of a three-day all-girls robotics camp at Collin College.
“They need to know they can be both an engineer and a mom,” Mortensen said. “There are so many opportunities you don’t always hear about. You can major in engineering and become a lawyer who specializes in technology, you can pursue biomedical engineering and work on machines that detect breast cancer and, if you want, you can work part time.”
Michelle White-Heon, a systems engineer, noted that female entrance into engineering revolutionized industry perspective, bringing forth new ideas for product improvements such as family-friendly car designs. Today, she explained, engineering is wider in breadth than many people realize. To Mortensen’s list, she added that those entering the field today can work with cloning, cybersecurity lasers and future concepts society has not even discovered yet.
Although Collin College has been offering robotics camps for years, Director of Engineering Dave Galley and his team decided they wanted to give young women a special opportunity.
Through a National Science Foundation grant and generous donations from Emerson Process Management, Advanced Technology Consultants, Global DataGuard and two anonymous donors, students experienced a three-day camp just for young women. It included time with female industry leaders who served as both speakers and volunteers, as well as instruction, the development of a robot with a team of other girls, meals and a final robot competition, all for less than $20.
Twelve-year-old camper Rachel Pierce said many of her friends enjoy academics, and she loves the gifted and talented courses at her school. However, she notes the camp served to occupy a gap her everyday peers don’t always fill.
“In school, a lot of my friends enjoy this kind of thing,” Pierce said in reference to engineering and robotics. “But a lot of them aren’t super interested outside of class. It’s cool to find people who want to spend time on it too.”
Pierce said she and her camp friends also enjoyed listening to the speakers, who ranged from Mortensen and an app designer to individuals from the Society of Women Engineers and an organization called “High Tech in High Heels.”
“You get a feel for what it was like for them and how they worked to overcome their obstacles,” Pierce explained.
“A Tangible Glimpse into the Potential Future”
Galley and Mortensen stress the importance of young girls being able to visualize themselves in a profession like engineering.
“That’s what female mentors in the industry provide,” Galley explained. “They serve as a touch point and encouragement.”While the all-girls robotics camp is unique, scholars across the nation and the world agree female mentoring plays a significant role in a young women’s decision to pursue STEM or engineering. Research and news stories affirming this connection have been published in a variety of science, academic and education journals, as well as other outlets such as U.S. News, the U.S. government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, The New York Times and National Public Radio.
Galley’s team at Collin College is aiming to provide girls with those crucial mentors early. Attendees of the Collin College all-girls robotics camp were given a list of names, companies and contact information for the industry volunteers they listened to and worked with at the camp.
“This is a huge deal for the girls,” Galley said. “This is one of the most important aspects to the camp’s intended experience. We don’t want them to just opt out after they leave. Each speaker has agreed to be there in support of these girls in the coming years. Often, girls are told that engineering is not for them by those that surround them. Through this list, they will be able to contact six strong role models that will help them opt in.”
Jay Long attended the final afternoon of the camp with his 14-year-old daughter to watch the robot competition.
As the father of two teenage girls, Long said he tries to expose them to every experience in technology possible. He believes it is important to have single-gendered events, like the robotics camp. In that setting, young girls may feel more comfortable stepping out, choosing hands-on roles or taking charge.
Claire Brewer, camp assistant and Collin College student, studying both engineering and physics, said she believes girls don’t typically receive the same level of exposure to the hands-on opportunities as the 7-10th graders who attended the robotics camp experienced.
“From activities and tasks like these, they can feel accomplishment, like they came for a reason, and then they want to keep doing it,” Brewer said.
Gender labels that many people apply to certain careers frustrate her.
“It shouldn’t be a guy or girl thing,” Brewer emphasized. “It should be a people thing.”
Brewer explained that growing up she didn’t have a female STEM mentor to encourage or an all-girls robotics camp where she could learn and develop camaraderie.Nonetheless, the future aerospace scientist said she loves her field of study. She doesn’t mind being a minority.
“I basically get to play with grown-up toys all day,” Brewer said, “except now they do things and help people.”
With another point of view, White-Heon said she enjoys the engineering environment because she is constantly surrounded by smart and creative people. Her personal excitement comes most from the fact that engineering allows her to participate in the consideration and development of new technological advances.
In a career field with so little female presence, Long said all-girls camps, along with presenters and mentors, serve as an inspiration, at least for his daughter.
“She came home and talked about the speakers each day,” Long said.
He loves that he can send his daughter to an educational camp that is not only fun, but an area where she has potential to build a successful career.
He hopes his girls can see technology careers in the same way White-Heon sees her industry, where “the only limit to engineering is your own imagination.”For more information about Collin College engineering, STEM or robotics, visit http://www.collin.edu/academics/programs/index.html.