What Would Make Girls Interested in Engineering? Just Ask Them

Interviews with preuniversity students get their take on the field

18 April 2016

There’s been a lot of discussion lately on why young women aren’t pursuing engineering, and how to get them interested. Some observers argue that role models are too few or that girls are simply not interested in science. Most such conversations, however, take place among adults. The Institute reached out to girls in middle and high school to determine what they think about entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and why they might become—or not become—engineers. Here is what they had to say.

Abby, 8th Grade, Pasadena, Md.

“When I think of engineering, I think of a box in which mathematics, science, and technology are all stuffed in, with no room for the arts,” Abby says. Although she says she enjoys STEM subjects, she also loves to draw, dance, and express herself in other creative ways. “Sometimes I forget I can do both—that I can fuse the two together.”

Right now she is tinkering with the idea of becoming a technology journalist, which would combine two of her interests. She has a head start: her Tech Pen blog, in which she reports on emerging technologies and interviews engineers about their jobs.

She also finds coding a lot of fun: “I like how code is a language that enables you to communicate with machines.”

The hands-on labs in her science classes got Abby interested in the sciences. “Facts I memorize out of a textbook often fade after the test,” she says, “but the labs make the lessons memorable, and are real and applicable.”

When she attended the IEEE Women in Engineering Girls “It’s Cool to Code” camp in July, the big takeaway for her was the contacts she made, including an engineer from Intel. “There were so many people there that I could learn from,” she says. “I’d be interested in attending conventions where engineers share what they do, and I could learn how they help people. When I meet people who are on fire about their work, it makes me excited. Enthusiasm is contagious.”

She would like to see activities being offered that girls could participate in with their friends, such as engineering challenges and races.

Many girls are not interested in engineering, Abby says, because they’re not being encouraged to pursue it. But once they’re introduced to the possibilities, “they are empowered” to go on that path.

If there were a maker fair—an event in which people create do-it-yourself science projects—in her area, she’d “clear her schedule” and sgo.

“Girls can do some really amazing things and shape the future,” she says. “We need both men and women in STEM, because every person brings new ideas and different perspectives.”

Malia, 8th grade, Millersville, Md.

“I have taken time to think about my future, but I tend to go blank about what I want to do as a career,” says Malia, a friend who helped Abby found Tech Pen. She’s interested in psychology, virtual reality, and neuroscience—and would like to combine them in a career. She has an idea for a device that integrates all three areas.

Malia says she understands why her peers might not be as interested in science as she is. “I think many don’t understand or appreciate just how important the sciences are.” She suggests that more effort be spent on simply explaining the fields to girls and providing hands-on projects, which can help them see what the sciences are about. The key to making and keeping girls interested in science, she says, is to “make it fun!”

Selma, 12th grade, San Antonio

“When women see how male-dominated science is, they feel intimidated, as if they don’t belong,” Selma says, “even if they have an interest in science.” She finds that jobs in the sciences are mostly tailored to men. And one big hesitation she has about becoming an engineer is that math and science are the subjects she struggles with most.

Like Abby, Selma believes hands-on lab experiments help interest students in the sciences. In one of her labs, she became interested in working with genetically modified organisms to understand the effects they have on the environment.

IEEE and similar organizations can help more girls become engaged in engineering, she says, by having members visit schools to talk to students about what they do, and STEM clubs in schools should be geared toward girls as much as boys.

Alex, 8th grade, Hamilton, N.J.

“Women aren’t encouraged to pursue the sciences,” Alex says. “It’s seen as a job for men.”

Although she enjoys math, she feels a field such as sociology or psychology would offer her a more appealing career path. “I like the idea of working with people,” she says.

She adds that she would be interested, however, in engineering-related activities such as learning how to code.

This article is part of our April 2016 special report on women in engineering.

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