SWE's "Save the World With Engineering" Outreach Targets Middle School Girls

A middle school girl launches the glider she designed during SWE's Aerouatical Engineering workshop.

May 16, 2016

Up to date on current research about STEM outreach, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at Illinois is aware that middle school is the crucial age to expose youngsters to STEM, and also that today’s young people want careers in which they can make a difference. So on April 16th, 2016, SWE held its first-ever SWE (Save the World with Engineering) event, an outreach that both targeted middle school girls and showed them that through careers in engineering, they can change the world.

A SWE participant does a circuit hands-on activity during the Computer Science workshop.

During the brand-new event, with its fun, superhero theme, the 30 or so middle school students participated in hands-on activities that gave them an opportunity to explore a number of different engineering disciplines as they rotated from workshop to workshop during the five-hour event. Plus, probably just as important, the middle schoolers also got to interact with Illinois’ female engineering students who served as role models while acting as instructors for the event, demonstrating that girls can be engineers too. Fun activities were even planned for the parents.

Bioengineering senior Emily Matchevich explains why targeting middle school students is so important.

“Middle school is the time when girls are starting to find interest in certain subjects,” she explains “But sometimes, by the time they get to high school, they’ve already narrowed down what their favorite subjects are. So middle school is a great time to capture that. They’re young enough that they’re still energetic and outgoing, but while they’re in elementary school, they're starting to mature, so they can appreciate the science activities we have for them. It’s just a really great balance and a really great time to spark their interest in engineering.”

Ashley Williams, SWE President for 2015–2016, who helped teach the Chemical Engineering workshop.

Ashley Williams, the SWE President for 2015–2016 and a Bioengineering senior, admits that she too was excited about participating in the event because of the new age group SWE was targeting:

“I came so I could help middle school girls be introduced to engineering. This was our first big middle school event that we’ve ever done, and it’s really exciting. I definitely wanted to be a part of it. I love doing different outreach events with our section.”

Did Williams see any girls who might be future engineers? “I saw quite a few,” she admits. "I am very excited to see where they’re going to go. A lot of them are on the cusp of high school, so this is when they really start deciding for themselves where they want to go and what they’re going to do. I saw budding curiosity in all of them. They asked such good questions, and they’re all really into it. That’s such a great thing to see before they go into high school.”

Illinois freshman Quyen Ngyen helps teach the SWE Chemical Engineering workshop.

Quyen Ngyen, a Chemical Engineering freshman, says she wanted to be a part of the outreach to give youngsters something she didn’t have at their age—a grasp of what the different engineering disciplines are.

“I really like the outreach because I remember when I was in middle school,” she acknowledges, “and I didn’t really know about what type of engineering there was. So this really exposes girls to what type of engineering it is or gives them a tangible example of what engineering is. I asked one of the girls and she said that chemical engineering was just pouring a bunch of things together!

Ngyen also says she encountered some future engineers at the event. “I definitely saw some when I asked them if they knew what distillation was and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, we did an example in class last week.’ and I was like, ‘I never did examples of what distillation is!’ I actually just did a distillation thing in lab last week, so they’re ahead of us!”

According to Ashley May, one of SWE’s co-Outreach Coordinators for 2015–2016, she believes Save the World with Engineering can be a wake-up call for many of these young girls career-wise. She hopes that it might cause them to consider engineering careers and provides the incentive to take the high school courses necessary to achieve their goals.

A middle school girl is enjoying herself despite having issues with the concoction she's making during SWE's Bioengineering workshop.

“I think this is probably the first time girls of this age get to see anything relating to the field of engineering, because a lot of times you don’t really start thinking about college majors like engineering until high school. I think this is really going to be an eye-opening experience for them to see that this is a career path, because you don’t really take any engineering-related classes in middle school. So this is something for them to look forward to that might help them decide what kind of classes they want to take in high school and start shaping their dreams for the future.”

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

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative
More: 6-8 Outreach, SWE, Women in STEM, 2016

During the Aeronautical Engineering workshop, a SWE participant adds a straw to try to correct her glider's flight issues.

A middle school student makes a circuit during SWE's Computer Science workshop.

Middle school students learn about computer engineering during Save the World with Engineering.