Women Engineers and Youth : Day 3 of a 3-part series

When Kristina Kremer, junior in civil engineering, applied to the engineering program at the University, she still was not sure if the major was right for her.

Her decision was made, however, after she attended the Society of Women Engineers’ Little Sister Weekend. During which, girls who have been admitted to the college spend a week on campus to learn more about the major. Each prospective student is assigned a current engineering student as a big sister.

There are 5,687 undergraduates enrolled in Engineering this academic year and 16.7 percent of them are women, according to the University’s Division of Management Information.

Kremer said youth outreach programs, like Little Sister Weekend, can be important for increasing female interest in the field.

“A large amount of making engineering a man’s profession starts before kids even get to the University,” she said.

Judith Liebman, first female tenure-track engineering faculty member to teach at the University, said young girls need to see more examples of engineering slipped into their curricula.

“Most are not exposed to engineering subjects and leave high school with other academic choices in mind,” she added.

Similarly, Susan Larson, assistant dean for the College of Engineering and director of Women in Engineering, said young girls are not encouraged to pursue math and science beyond high school.

Charles Tucker, associate dean for undergraduate programs for the College of Engineering, added that national studies show that middle school girls score slightly better at math than their male peers.

Women in Engineering, an academic program office, and many groups on campus organize youth outreach programs to interest young girls in engineering.

The GAMES camp, or Girls’ Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science camp, allows 6th to 8th grade girls to explore subjects such as computer science, structural engineering, bioimaging and other engineering disciplines. GAMES camp is an annual week-long summer camp developed by the Women in Engineering Program.

Larson said it is important to reach out to girls at the middle school age.

“Around middle school is where many women start getting turned off from math or science,” she said.

She said programs like the GAMES camp show girls what engineers can do and how it can be fun.

Tucker said about 200 girls attended the camp in 2009.

Kremer, president of the Society of Women Engineers at the University, or SWE, said the group travels to middle schools near campus at least once a week.

“One of the biggest things we do is encourage younger girls to consider engineering and help them when they’re having problems,” she said.

LaDonna Helm, kindergarten teacher at Leal Elementary School, 312 W. Oregon St., Urbana, where SWE holds biweekly, hour-long engineering activities, said her students respond well to the outreach program and look forward to the activities.

Helm said before SWE representatives started coming to the school, most of her students did not know what engineers do. She said being exposed to math and science at a young age makes kids more interested in those subjects as they grow older.

Larson said women who participate in youth outreach programs act as role models and prove to young girls that women can be successful in engineering.

Jenny Tsao, senior in general engineering, said she went to a science summer camp when she was younger and is now involved in elementary outreach programs through SWE. She added that in her experience hosting youth outreach activities, she has found that many young children are aware of how few women are in engineering.

“The teacher actually came up to me and was like, ‘I’m so glad you came and did this presentation because a group of girls in my class were really excited that there’s a woman in engineering,’” Tsao said.