Paving a Path for Young Girls to Pursue Engineering

The Wisconsin Idea Fellowship (WIF) gives UW-Madison students opportunities to engage with and serve Madison communities beyond campus borders.

Eva the Engineer: Young Girls at the intersection of Engineering and Sustainability, a current 2017-2018 WIF project, is doing just that by exposing middle school-aged girls to all of the possibilities that lie within the field of engineering.

Eva the Engineer is lead by UW students Morgan Sanger and Renee Olley and supported by Tyler Klinkas as an outreach initiative of their research organization: The Recycled Materials Resource Center. To implement their project at Badger Rock Middle School, these students have partnered with Wisconsin Concrete Pavement Association and the Madison Metropolitan School District.

The group got the idea for the project when they came across an article in Science Magazine which discussed how young children view intelligence in relation to gender, specifically how girls tend to increasingly view men as smarter than women as they get older. Sanger and Olley were also inspired by their own experiences being surrounded by so few women in their college engineering courses.

“If you don’t see role models like you in the job you aspire to have when you are young, you will assume that job isn’t for you,” Olley said.

As a result, Sanger and Olley decided to focus their project on girls in sixth, seventh and eighth grade so that they would have the opportunity to explore the field of engineering before the time comes to sign up for high school courses. Sanger and Olley believed that targeting girls at this age would have the greatest impact as taking more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses in high school. As a result, they would be more likely to continue studying STEM in post-secondary education and pursuing a career in the field of engineering.

Badger Rock Middle School’s contributions to Eva the Engineer have been critical to its success. With the guidance of the principal, Hong Tran, and school counselor, Jamie Ames, the group has had invaluable insight as to how to develop hands-on activities that fit with the school’s project-based educational philosophy.

Eva the Engineer approaches engineering through a sustainability lens by incorporating hands-on activities that challenge the girls to use recycled materials in new and creative ways. Many of the activities the students participated in involved working with concrete in which they made stepping stones out of recycled materials.

Eva the Engineer’s community partner, the Wisconsin Concrete Pavement Association, has been supportive of the project every step of the way. Women in engineering—both students and professionals—visited the young girls participating in the project and had an open forum to answer questions about what it is like to work in the field.

When one student asked Andrea Breen, a technical services engineer and associate member of the Wisconsin Concrete Association, whether or not engineering coursework is hard in college, Breen recalls answering honestly that it was difficult times and challenges in classes, but that she continued because she wanted to be an engineer.

“I would not want a student to be disillusioned, nor would I want to frighten a potential fellow young scientist away, but they should know that it will take hard work, it will take sacrifice, it will take perseverance, it will take asking for help, but what worthwhile endeavor does not have some of that, with a most rewarding set of accomplishments to follow, both great and small,” Breen said.

Interested students that have an idea for a project that will help the Madison community please consider applying for your own Wisconsin Idea Fellowship by the priority deadline, 5:00 p.m. on Jan. 26, or by our final deadline, 5:00 p.m. on Feb. 9.

Any questions about the past information sessions, projects or the grant application process should be directed to Hannah Stephens.

By Rebecca Penn