Students Volunteer to Engage Girls in Engineering Careers

November 26, 2012 — Girls holding robotsAsk just about anyone if they know a female engineer and the likely answer will be a resounding, “No.”

Drexel Engineering students Leila Aboharb and Samantha Schneider are trying to change that. The pair runs a Women in Aerospace Technology program aimed at building an interest in engineering among preteen and teen girls. 

What started as an eight-week workshop three years ago has grown in to multi-year effort to excite young girls about careers in engineering. The girls enter the program as early as age eleven and complete a series of five modules focused on different types of engineering. The program was initially envisioned as an outreach initiative for Girl Scouts, however, it is now open to all girls.

A 2011 study by the The National Science Foundation found that the number of women who earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering is at its lowest levels since 1989.  While women hold close to half of all jobs in the U.S., less than 25 percent of women are employed in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, according to a 2011 finding by the Department of Commerce.  It’s a trend that has continued over the past decade despite an increase in the number of college educated women in the U.S. workforce, leading some to wonder if enough is being done to encourage women to consider degrees in science and technology.

Aboharb and Schneider believe that if girls are introduced to engineering programs early, they can overcome the stigma that it’s a field “just for the boys.”

“We’re trying to encourage girls before they’re exposed to some of the gender norms that tell them engineering is for guys.  If you reach them before that they don’t see any limitation on what they choose [as a major] when they go to college.” Aboharb said. 

For two hours every other Saturday, the group of girls meets with Aboharb and Schneider to complete a series of projects focused on different engineering disciplines.  Every girl takes an initial module on the physics of flight at the American Helicopter Museum, one of the program’s sponsors, in West Chester. As each girl progresses through the program they experience new modules designed to challenge their notion of engineering. Throughout the program the girls will build Mindstorm NXT robots, study the engineering behind fashion, get a first-hand look at the “dirty engineering” of race cars and learn about renewable energy with Vanguard Systems, also a sponsor.

 “When I was younger, there weren’t really programs like this,” Aboharb said. “It’s really rewarding to see the change in the girls,” she added.

Leila Aboharb is a junior in the Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics at Drexel University and has worked on the Women in Aerospace Technology program since it started three years ago.  She recruited Samantha Schneider, an Environmental Engineering student to help her run the program.