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Engineer Week lays out exciting possibilities for young women

Middle school girls learn about circuits, coding and role models at annual event clearing up long-held STEM misconceptions.

Thirty-eight percent of this year’s freshmen at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering are women, more than twice the national average over all grades.

As part of the school’s ongoing outreach efforts, student volunteers held an all-day conference on Feb. 26 to educate young women about the field and its many opportunities.

“Part of the reason the national average of women students in engineering is small,” said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, “is that its representation in the popular culture is skewed.

“Engineering is a most creative discipline that solves grand challenge problems for the benefit of mankind and produces amazing new opportunities to enrich human life,” Yortsos explained. This is why we are engaged in the national movement to ‘change the conversation.’ And as part of this effort, we just launched the exciting project for The Next MacGyver that will feature a new TV series with a female engineer in the leading role.”

Engineers for a day

At “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” members of USC Viterbi’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Women in Engineering (WIE) and Association of Computing Machinery met with local, female middle school students to show how pursuing engineering is not only possible, but exciting.

This event provides the setting in which the girls can see all the successful women engineers and the powerful network we’ve created.

Katrina Gloriani

“This event provides the setting in which the girls can see all the successful women engineers and the powerful network we’ve created, which can inspire them in ways that being in a normal classroom setting could not,” said Katrina Gloriani, a junior majoring in computer science and business administration, and SWE’s ambassador for the event.

The gathering was part of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Engineer Week. Founded in 2001, the National Girl’s Day portion of the week showcases engineering to over a million girls across the country.

This included about 50 students from Inglewood’s Grace Hopper STEM Academy junior high school, who spent the day on the University Park Campus with approximately 30 USC Viterbi student volunteers. The event included three workshops, all adapting engineering to the girls’ interests.

“Most girls shy away from ‘nerdier’ subjects during their pre-teens because of the pressure of how society expects them to be, which is why our target for this event is girls in middle school,” Gloriani said. “We hope to change their misconceptions about STEM.”

No short circuits

At the gathering, the girls first attended a workshop on kits that allow users to draw their own circuits.

Students then learned about coding, using Python software. The activity challenged the typical stereotype of coding as a dull, individual activity; girls used the software to form sentences about cupcakes and shared their results with each other.

“I’ve never done anything like this before, but it’s really fun,” said Kimberly, an eighth-grade student.

The event closed with a pitching activity that tackled two problems contributing to the low percentage of girls in engineering: the idea that engineering is for boys and a lack of self-esteem.

After watching a video of Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox girls’ construction toys, the girls discussed how their toys affected them.

“To increase this [women in engineering] representation, you have to start young and really change the dynamic of how we raise girls in our culture,” said Irina Tyshkevich, SWE executive vice president.

And here’s the pitch

After Malyika Nagpal, a junior majoring in computer science and business administration, presented pitching strategies, girls split into teams and pitched their own new toy ideas. Nagpal said that in addition to engineering, girls often shy away from entrepreneurship.

“Males tend to lean more toward startups than girls,” she said. “This activity allows them to practice thinking up and pitching ideas on the spot, paving the way for them to take initiative and more leadership roles in the future.”

The girls’ pitches ranged from a build-your-own curling iron to a video game for children with mental disabilities.

In addition to helping future engineering students, the event also benefited current female engineers.

“Growing up,” Gloriani said, “I never was provided with this kind of opportunity and was looked down on for loving math and science.

“I know a lot of the girls that are volunteering have felt the same way,” she added. “We want to make it so that no girl ever misses the chance to reach their full potential because they didn’t think it was possible.”

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Engineer Week lays out exciting possibilities for young women

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