Few girls choose engineering classes because they aspire to be engineers. Many choose their classes because their friends do. The sense of belonging is important to them, and girls in STEM want to feel as if they belong. When Marsha* was young, she had no plans to be an engineer.
As she entered high school, many of her new friends joined the robotics club that met after school. Marsha initially decided to not join her friends. However, after a few weeks she started to feel left out of the daily conversation that usually revolved around robotics and their after school meetings. Consequently, Marsha found herself starting to attend every robotics meeting in order to keep up with the conversation and her new friends’ interests.
Ironically, Marsha realized how interesting engineering actually was, and eventually decided to join the competitive girl’s robotics team that year. With Marsha’s help and with the guidance of a female robotics mentor, the team qualified for an all-girls robotics competition. Marsha’s love for engineering was set.
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When Marsha’s peers were selecting electives for the following year, she heard that the 2nd year of engineering would be a continuation of what she had already learned in the robotics club, and the same female teacher was again the robotics mentor. Marsha continued in engineering her junior and senior year, and has now decided to major in computer science.
Marsha’s story illustrates some of the key components required to recruit and retain girls in STEM: community, focus on soft skills like written and verbal communication as well as technical skills, the appeal of problem solving in the real world, and relatable mentors or role models. These components are an integral part of the FlexFactor program, and they are why I am a strong supporter of the initiative for its appeal to students like Marsha.