Girls explore careers in engineering at SFU
Cardboard, rubber bands, lollipop sticks, packing tape. It reads like an arts and crafts shopping list, but 40 girls transformed these everyday materials into robot arms at SFU’s Burnaby campus on October 17.
The challenge was part of Go ENG Girl's nationwide program promoting engineering to girls in grades seven to 10 through creative, hands-on activities. It is the first time that SFU has hosted the event, but organizers say it won’t be the last.
“We know that the majority of engineering science graduates are male,” says Faculty of Applied Sciences outreach programs manager Daniela Abasi.
“By hosting Go ENG Girl, we hope to really immerse girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and show them that studying engineering could lead to a fun and lucrative career. We also want to give parents a chance to ask questions about engineering and find out how they can help support their daughters.”
Female students make up 54 per cent of SFU’s undergraduate enrolment and 57 per cent of graduate students. In the Faculty of Applied Sciences that percentage is much lower – 15 per cent of undergraduates and 22 per cent of graduate students in 2014 - 2015 – but slowly increasing.
Imagination fuels invention
Indigo Chao’s uncle is an engineer in California, and someday she would like to be one too. “I’d like to work on something that can help people, so I’m interested in biology and engineering,” says Chao, a grade 10 student at Burnaby Central Secondary School.
Her eyes widen when she learns about the field of biomedical engineering, which applies engineering principles to medicine and biology. “I’ve never heard of that, but it sounds amazing,” she says.
The morning’s task – working in small teams to create a robot arm capable of lifting a plastic cup filled with marshmallows, then pouring the candy into another cup – was designed to showcase the imagination and teamwork involved in engineering design.
From complex, towering creations with pulleys and levers to simple but effective claw mechanisms, the final designs were all brimming with creativity.
“I really like the robot arm activity because it’s so different from what you learn in school,” says Chao. “You have to think out of the box and you make your own plan; there are no rules.”
While the girls got creative with their inventions, parents listened to inspiring talks from successful women in engineering about programs of study in the field and its diverse career opportunities.
Presenters included Erika Castellanos, an entrepreneur and chief operating officer with her own software company Mankua Software; Priyanka Deshmukh, a biomedical engineering alumna and consultant with multinational professional services firm Deloitte; and SFU engineering science professor Lesley Shannon, the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering.
Current engineering science student Lauren Jackson also spoke to the young engineers and their parents about her own personal experience, and key stereotypical misperceptions about girls and engineering.
“Amadea smiled through that whole presentation; I could see she could relate,” says parent Susan de Wit. Thirteen-year-old Amadea has taken part in SFU's engineering-focused outreach events for four years, and has been “wiring things up since she was two,” say de Wit.
“She never pushed a doll buggy, instead she'd pass me the doll and try to take the buggy apart. It was moving as a parent to see my daughter amongst peers, young and mature, who think like her.”
Rising to the challenge
Amadea and Indigo were part of the winning team that took home first prize for its robot arm solution: a cup-holding claw attached to a stick - a simple twist, and the cup tips upside down, dispensing the marshmallows.
The design was “simple, unique and above all effective,” says engineering science student Melissa Mah, a volunteer at the event.
“I think it's wonderful how young girls nowadays are exposed to activities that not only stimulate their creativity, but also allow them to try more hands-on, technical work,” says Mah. “It's encouraging to see young girls excited to pursue STEM-related professions and challenging themselves, regardless of their gender.”
Like many parents in attendance, Amadea’s mother believes it is vital to expose girls to the plethora of diverse career opportunities offered in STEM fields.
“Creativity and out-of-the-box thinking can be applied to make great changes in the world, which means it is so important for young girls to take part in engineering in a hands-on way,” she says.
The event certainly made an impact close to home.
“At the end of the day Amadea said, ‘I know what I want to be now: an engineer!’ It doesn’t get better than that.”