Getting creative to introduce young women to engineering

If you grow up in Boston and are lucky enough to go to the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science or to Boston Latin School, then you have many examples of classmates and recent grads who are heading off to Cornell or MIT or Stanford to study engineering. If you are from New York City and you go to the Bronx High School of Science or the Staten Island Technical High School then you probably know people who are majoring in engineering at Georgia Tech or Carnegie Melon.

But what if you grow up in Norwich or Weedsport in Upstate New York? These are small towns with small high schools. The schools are excellent, but if you are a female student who is strong in math and science and wondering how to pursue these strengths into college, you might be somewhat on your own.

Members of CBE Women, which is the graduate women’s group of the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell (CBE) are doing what they can to make sure the young women who go to high school in the Finger Lakes region get a taste of what undergraduate engineering is all about.

Since 2010, CBE Women has been hosting an event they call WOMEN (Women’s Outreach in Materials, Energy, and Nanobiotechnology) on the Ithaca campus. The event is unique in two ways: it focuses on tenth grade students from rural districts; and it includes parents in the scheduled activities. 

The event was the brainchild of Jennifer Schaefer ’14 Ph.D. and Alexandra Corona  ’10 MEng., who were both CBE graduate students back in 2010. “I grew up in a rural community in Upstate NY,” says Schaefer, who is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame. “I thought that the WOMEN event would be an opportunity for CBE to connect with the surrounding smaller school districts and provide high school girls and their parents information about career options and college preparation that may not otherwise be available to them.” 

“Sitting in the lab one day between experiments, Jen and I were talking about what inspired us to go into the engineering,” recalls Corona, who now works as an engineer at the Boeing Corporation. “Jen told me a story about an inspiring lecture she heard by a professor she nicknamed the Ape Man. I told Jen the story of my high school days where an enthusiastic chemistry teacher got me to dream about working for NASA one day. We realized that it might take just one passionate person or event to open girls’ eyes to the possibilities of careers in science and engineering. From that conversation, the idea of WOMEN was first conceived, and I’m extremely proud that it is still inspiring young girls today.”

Twenty-one high school students attended WOMEN that first year, along with their parents. In 2016, there were thirty-four students and twenty-five parents present. 

“Everything went smoothly and the girls really seemed to enjoy themselves,” says Yaset Acevedo.  “The parents left inspired and happy to have spent the day with their daughters. We find that the young women who attend are genuinely curious about their opportunities and this event gives them an opportunity to understand what a career in STEM would be, while avoiding all the stereotypes associated.” By the way, Yaset Acevedo is the Outreach Coordinator for CBE Women but he is not, in fact, a woman. The group focuses on issues particularly important to women, but its membership is not limited to women.

This year’s event included lab activities focused on Process Engineering, Materials Engineering, and Bioengineering as well as faculty research talks for parents to attend. There were also a parent-student lab, a student panel to answer questions, and an information session for parents.

Acevedo, who is a Ph.D. student in CBE, put in a lot of work to get ready for the WOMEN event. To make an event like this successful takes many people working together. “Preparing for a full day of laboratory and educational activities is time consuming, but our team of 35 volunteers is excited and personally motivated to get everything right. Starting in October, we spend time using feedback from the students and parents to improve on lab activities and talks,” says Acevedo after this year’s event. “I could not be more happy with how things went. This year, we ran a new biology lab and many girls named that as their favorite so we are excited to add that to our repertoire. In addition, several students stated they are seriously considering a career in science or engineering. If the students and parents leave feeling empowered to take on a STEM career, we have done our job.”

Susan Daniel, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Smith School, has been involved in the WOMEN event since its inception. “Many young girls are still not sure what a technical career entails and some do not have any role models to show them, especially those from rural communities,” says Daniel. “And because many parents also don't know what these careers involve, we felt it was important to involve them.”

While there is certainly a growing awareness of the value of diversity in the STEM fields, the reality in the classroom, the lab, and the tech companies has not yet caught up to the awareness. Cornell Engineering has been recognized nationally for its efforts to enroll more women in its undergraduate and graduate engineering degree programs. In fact, this year’s freshman engineering class is half female.

Daniel continues, “The WOMEN event gives the girls a lot of confidence that they could be successful in engineering one day. For many, this is their first experience being on a college campus and it makes a strong impression that stays with them and makes them want to work hard in school so they can get here. Of course, parents are still the biggest influence on their kids, so including them is an important part of our program.”

One participant this year said she heard about the event from her chemistry teacher in the small town of Honeoye—about two hours northwest of Ithaca. “I loved it,” she said. “I am very glad I came today. I got to learn about all the different kinds of engineering.” Another student said, “This was a great opportunity for me to see things I might not be exposed to at my school in Norwich. My trigonometry teacher told me about it and it sounded like something I would like, so I came.”

One of the parents in the audience for the Question-and-Answer session at the end of the day summed it up like this: “This was an excellent experience. My daughter and all the girls got exposure to engineering and to a great campus environment. It’s inspirational—once you see it, you want it.”

CBE Women conducts ongoing follow-up with past participants in the program. Of those responding to the follow-up survey, an impressive 73% report that the WOMEN event had an impact on their choice of college major. One anonymous respondent said, “It was at the WOMEN event that I learned about biomedical engineering. I didn’t even know it existed before that.”

Another past participant wrote, “The WOMEN event was a turning point for me. Prior to the event, I had no idea what I wanted to study in college. There seemed to be too many options and no way to decide. I had not even considered engineering until attending the WOMEN event and seeing that I could combine my interest in science with problem solving to solve real-world issues.” If further proof is needed of the effectiveness of the WOMEN event, at least four of the past participants are now enrolled at Cornell in STEM majors.

The members of CBE Women are pleased with how well the event went this year. They can relax and get back to their own research for a while. But, come October, they will start planning next year’s event…