The challenge — can you design a gumball machine using everyday items like soda bottles, pipe cleaners, modeling clay, wooden skewers and a hot glue gun?
A dozen middle and high school girls proved they could on the last day of the College of Southern Maryland’s (CSM) Engineer Like a Girl summer program, held July 24-28 at the Leonardtown Campus. The girls broke into two groups and spent a morning quietly tackling the problem together.
“Hey, it works!” said Olga Sullivan of Piney Point, raising her arms in victory after her group launched a successful test run of their machine.
In addition to the gumball machine challenge, during the week-long program the girls worked with a 3-D printer, explored topics like biomechanical analysis and computer-aided design and took a field trip to Patuxent River Naval Air Station to visit two labs and talk to female engineers at work.
“It was definitely encouraging and inspiring,” said participant Shareese Adams of Welcome. Adams, a rising sophomore at Lackey High School, aspires to be a chemical engineer. She said her favorite part of the week was the field trip to Pax River and “seeing all the women engineers.”
The program isn’t just about exposing girls to career opportunities in engineering, said CSM Pre-Engineering Coordinator Shadei Jones, who, along with Academic Adviser Jehnell Linkins, created Engineer Like a Girl three years ago. The program is designed to inspire the girls and prepare them for subtle and not-so-subtle pushback to their aspirations.
Females represented in the engineering profession is at 8-15 percent, according to the Chicago Tribune, which cites the Society of Women Engineers. “It’s low,” said Jones.
As the Engineer Like a Girl teams worked, Jones discussed some of the challenges that come with those low numbers and with slow-to-change attitudes. Jones said she experienced resistance in her own career as a manufacturing engineer, especially when she was promoted to positions of authority. She referred to an Oct. 31, 2016, article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education that indicates that 17 percent of white, male engineers considered diversity a threat to the integrity of the profession.
Jones looked up at the Engineer Like a Girl participants working on their gumball machines. “They’re up against something. I’ve got to get them ready,” Jones said. “That’s why I started the camp.”
Toward that effort, organizers of the Engineer Like a Girl program talked to the girls about planning for college success, working toward a balanced life and “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” They surrounded the girls with poster images of successful women engineers to inspire them — Martha Chavez, program manager for Hewlett-Packard; Sheila E. Widnall, MIT aeronautics and astronautics engineering professor; Uma Chowdry, director of DuPont engineering technology; and Moira A. Gunn, president of Megotech Media.
“It’s probably tougher for women because it’s usually a man’s profession,” Adams said, conceding that her plans to become a chemical engineer may include roadblocks.
Sullivan, 16, a rising junior at Holton-Arms School, an all-girl private school in Bethesda, said she hasn’t decided what direction she wants to go with her future career — maybe aerospace or mechanical engineering, maybe a service academy, maybe medical school, but definitely STEM-oriented. She attended Engineer Like a Girl to help her better discern among those choices. “I’m still looking at all my options,” Sullivan said. “I just like going to these kinds of programs. It helps me decide.”
Sullivan says she is undaunted by the prospect of the challenges she may face, whatever her choice. “I’ve always seen myself as a confident person,” she said, adding that could work around challenges if they arise.
Engineer Like a Girl is free to the participants. The program is funded through the CSM Foundation. "The CSM Foundation is able to fund outreach educational programs in STEM, the arts and other disciplines thanks to many generous local corporate and private sponsors in Southern Maryland. We are grateful for our sponsorship support of all CSM students," said CSM Vice President of Advancement Michelle Goodwin, executive director of the CSM Foundation.
The Southern Maryland Chain Chapter, The Links Inc., of which Linkins is the president, is one CSM Foundation donor organization that gives specifically to help fund the Engineer Like a Girl program. “We’re supportive of the program because we believe in the power of supporting strong, intelligent, enthusiastic, dedicated young women to persevere in the areas of science, technology, engineering, arts and math,” Linkins said. “For the past 35 years, The Links Inc. has been committed to serving the community in Calvert Charles and St Mary's counties.”
This year’s participants spent a week of their summer in the program for a variety of reasons. Some already knew their interest in engineering as a career, some wanted to learn more about opportunities, some said they look for STEM-related programs and to connect with others with like interests. Others just thought it might be fun.
“You make a lot of friends through this program, and I think that’s really cool,” said Sabrina Thipwong, a rising sophomore at Patuxent High School.
Isabella Corradi, a rising sophomore at Westlake High School, hopes to some day be a pediatric surgeon in the military. Her favorite parts of the Engineer Like a Girl program included the coding work, working with the 3-D printer and creating the gumball machine. Corradi’s advice to other girls who wonder about exploring careers in engineering — “You have to try something before you knock it.”
For information on CSM’s Engineer Like a Girl program, call 301-934-7747 or visit stem.csmd.edu/EngineerLikeaGirl.html. To donate toward the program or other CSM Foundation efforts, visit http://foundation.csmd.edu/giving/index.html.