Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day Tells Girls: "You Can Be an Engineer, Change the World!”

An IGED participant makes a spaghetti-marshmallow structure during a Civil Engineering hands-on activity. The students were tasked with building the tallest, yet sound structure.

March 10, 2016

On Saturday, February 20th, SWE’s Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day did just that. Around 150 high school girls (and their parents) who showed up at Illinois’ Loomis Lab for the day-long outreach were introduced to Engineering at Illinois by female engineering students who were excited to get to know the girls and to convey to them this dual message:
1) that they too could become engineers, and
2) that a career in engineering would give them the chance to make a difference. And of course, the Illinois students who helped out hoped to not only woo some of these potential recruits into engineering, but maybe even into their own particular fields.

The third annual Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day (IGED) at Illinois, sponsored by Illinois’ chapter of Society of Women Engineers (SWE) was part of the national Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day that corresponds with National Engineers Week. SWE’s biggest and most widely attended outreach event of the year, IGED attracted visitors from all over the state. In addition, SWE bussed interested Chicago Public Schools students and their parents to and from Champaign to ensure that lack of transportation wouldn’t deter them from participating in the event.

The day began with an introduction by IGED co-chairs Abbie Gerth and Rebecca Ficht, followed by breakout sessions where the girls learned about a number of engineering disciplines via some hands-on activities.

Above: An IGED participant makes a circuit in one of the morning's breakout sessions.

Below: Two high schoolers show off the circuits they made in one of the morning's breakout sessions.

Clair Sullivan, an assistant professor in Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering, gave the keynote address, proclaiming that girls can be engineers, too, as she shared some of the successes and the challenges she has encountered as a woman in engineering.

Sullivan wasn’t the only one hoping to convince the girls that they could become engineers. IGED co-chair Rebecca Ficht, a junior in bioengineering, says that in addition to exposing the high school girls to different disciplines of engineering, she got involved “to show them that even if you’re a woman, you can still do engineering. I think it’s great to inspire girls, especially when they’re high schoolers who are just about to pick their majors going into college. We like to show them how awesome engineering is.”

While the morning’s activities exposed girls to the different types of engineering, the focus of the day’s main event, a big design project, was to convince the participants that through careers in engineering they could make a difference—could change the world. So the girls teamed up for a design challenge in the afternoon, where they designed a prototype, created a poster explaining how they their design would solve a problem, then presented their design to the judges (engineering faculty, staff, and graduate students) and to their parents.  

Two high school girls present their design challenge: a plan that enables villagers in third world countries to get electricity from potatoes.

Did participating in IGED help the girls learn that careers in engineering would give them a chance to make a difference? Ashley May, one of SWE’s outreach coordinators, believes so.

“I think, today, girls can see just the power of engineering in being able to change the world. Because these design challenge are all geared toward real-world problems and major issues in our society, and they managed to come up with solutions in 90 minutes. Of course they didn’t think of a complete solution,” May acknowledges. “They didn’t solve the problem, but they’re starting to think like that, and they’re seeing that engineering is a career where they can change the world and make a difference for society.”

The girls showed up for Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day for a number of reasons—often their parents had a lot to do with it.

For example, one high school sophomore, reports “I’m just here to learn.” Admitting that science and math are her weakest subjects, she explains, “So my mom thought it would be a good idea to get me here and have me feel things out and see if I like this type of thing or not.” Did she like it? Yes!

“It’s really cool actually. When I went to computer engineering, I learned how to do all the technical stuff and how people program computers and video games. It’s actually really cool. That would be a backup plan for me other than writing.”

Junior Kristin Winteroff (left) and her parents wait for Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day to begin.

Another participant, junior Kristin Winteroff, says she definitely wants to become an engineer. She hasn’t picked a discipline, but is looking at a number of them, including Civil.  

Neither of her parents are engineers, although her dad worked for a highway department for 30 years. However, her parents still encouraged her to attend: “She did really well in math and science,” admits Mom, so we told her, 'Let’s try this!'”

The girls weren’t the only ones to learn about Engineering at Illinois; IGED planners scheduled parent workshops about financial aid/scholarships, summer engineering programs, a Talk-with-a-Dean session, and a student panel to help parents discover what being a student at Illinois might be like for their daughters. And of course, at the day’s end, parents proudly watched their daughters present what they had dreamed up during the design challenge.

A team of high schoolers design a mechanism during the Mechanical Engineering breakout session.

According to Lara Flasch, another of SWE’s outreach coordinators, SWE received great feedback from parents: “We also spoke with a lot of parents the day of the event who were very appreciative of and excited about the experience that their daughters were able to get from the day!”

Flasch was also excited about the post-event survey responses received from the participants themselves, which she described as “overwhelmingly positive feedback about the day!”

What were the girls' favorite parts of the day? One had enjoyed solving a real-world problem: "My favorite part was the design challenge, because it was fun to be able to apply myself and my knowledge to the real world!"

Left to right: A high school participant and a Chemical Engineering student high five when the high schooler's project finally tests successful during a Chemical Engineering hands-on activity.

Another appreciated working on a team: "The design challenge was my favorite part. I got to work closely with my group for a long time to solve a common problem in the world, and the different prompts didn't make competition stressful."

Another appreciated being exposed to the different engineering disciplines: "Really enjoyed the demonstrations of each discipline in engineering. It broadened my knowledge in engineering."

A high school student works on her team's prototype during IGED's Design Challenge.

And finally, a number of girls most enjoyed getting to chat with the female engineering students: "Interacting with other female engineers," "Talking to the students about college life," and "The insight from each member of the engineering program."

Another exciting discovery from the surveys was that a vast majority of the girls didn’t have a parent or sibling in engineering.

“So we feel that we targeted a great group of smart girls who may not have been exposed to engineering otherwise!” exults Flasch.

An IGED team proudly shows off their poster and prototype.

The high school girls and the parents who participated in IGED weren’t the only ones to benefit from the outreach. According to Abby Pakeltis, the youngest of the two Pakeltis sisters, both of whom are enrolled in Engineering at Illinois and both of whom helped out at the event; whenever she does a SWE outreach, she benefits too.

“The Society of Women Engineers is just a great way to grow as a person through these outreach events where you can share your love of engineering with young girls and inspire them to pursue engineering, where you can change the world,” says Pakeltis. “But also it’s a great way for me to grow professionally, so it just helps me become a more well-rounded person.”

For additional I-STEM web articles about SWE, see:

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative
More: 8-12 Outreach, SWE, Women in STEM, 2016

Above: A team of high schoolers present their "Stair Chair" idea to visitors during the poster session following IGED's Design Challenge.
Below: An IGED participant puts the final touches on her team's Design Challenge poster.