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One educator uses this program to show girls and underrepresented student groups how they can pursue tech careers, including girls in STEM like these girls learning engineering.

This program is determined to support girls in STEM


One educator uses the FlexFactor program to show girls and underrepresented student groups how they can pursue STEM careers

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.

Related content: 4 career connections to help get more girls in STEM

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.

I’ve been teaching our school’s junior and senior engineering classes for five years, and this is our third year participating in the FlexFactor program. The 5-week program introduces students to an industry they might not know about, and motivates them to pursue an education and career in engineering and advanced manufacturing for the future.

FlexFactor prepares students for a career in these fields by challenging them to work in teams to identify a real-world problem and a solution. It has great appeal for me, because it helped my engineering classes learn a bit more about the business aspects of product development, and it also gave them an opportunity to practice their presentation skills in a formal setting. It supports my goals to attract female students and retain under-served populations in engineering. When assigning the teams, I give girls the choice of working in teams with other girls to support community building that keeps them engaged.

For many girls, the appeal of learning about technology for technology’s sake is not inspiring. These students search for a career that has a deeper connection to solving society’s problems. FlexFactor highlights how technology solves critical human problems today. The real-world focus inspires students to connect STEM areas of study and their compassion for others.

In addition, written documentation and verbal communication are critical soft skills for any engineer. FlexFactor allows students to practice their communication skills describing a technical product. This balanced emphasis on technical knowledge and communication skills helps develop talents not emphasized in a more typical engineering class. High school girls with strong communication skills are encouraged by this aspect of engineering.

In her senior year engineering class, Marsha learned that group presentations to a variety of audiences were required and a significant part of her grade. Because she had good speaking skills, this gave her confidence in her ability to succeed. Her group was the top performer in the FlexFactor program and won a place to compete in the regional competition representing her school.

Students in the FlexFactor program can take on different roles to learn how marketing, finance, and manufacturing and design are all critical parts of a company. For some, this is the first glance at how areas of study like STEM can be split into different job functions within a company.

One of the most difficult parts of recruiting and retaining under-served populations is finding successful examples of people in that career. As part of the FlexFactor program, Industry Day is a field trip to a local high-tech company. Our students toured Jabil’s Blue Sky Center, which displays some of the world’s cutting-edge technologies and showcases examples of automation, product design, intelligent digital supply chains, the Internet of Things, and more. On this trip, students interacted with a diverse panel of younger employees and met the workforce first hand.

It is important for students to be able to see themselves in their career choice. Knowing that people with similar backgrounds are succeeding in a variety of STEM disciplines encourages students to consider it as a career. Marsha questioned one of the female engineers on the panel about her aspirations to be in STEM. She wanted to know the panelist’s choice of major in college and how that enabled her to work as a critical part of a team in this very innovative environment.

As an educator, I’m very excited to be able to offer my students the FlexFactor program. I have seen the numbers of the under-served populations, particularly girls, in the program expand as positive “word-of mouth” about my class and this program inspires the next group of students to explore engineering.

*name changed to protect privacy

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