Outreach program introduces girls to STEM fields

For many young girls, engineering does not seem like an accessible career path.

Women in Science and Engineering’s (WISE) Kid-Netic Energy is an outreach program working with the University of Manitoba to help girls in the province change their minds.

Indigenous youth recruitment and outreach officer Michelle Carriere said the program aims to have different perspectives in the field of engineering, as it has traditionally been a male-dominated area.

“We need more diversity [and] not only gender diversity but also different people [who] have different backgrounds as well,” she said.

For the past three years, the organization has hosted a program at the Fort Garry campus called Go Eng Girl, led in part by female undergraduate engineering students who work with the girls to build a project throughout the day.

Gender bias in the engineering profession is something that Robyn Grahame, a third-year civil engineering student and mentor to girls who attended this year’s program Saturday, has experienced firsthand.

“When I was in high school, I was invited to go to an engineering outreach day, but it was only me and other boys were invited. I was the only girl invited,” she said.

“Obviously I didn’t feel comfortable as the only female, so I chose not to go, but if I wasn’t the only girl invited, I might’ve chosen this path earlier, which is interesting.”

Grahame began her post-secondary career studying medicine before moving into engineering.

Kid-Netic Energy is geared toward girls in Grades 7 to 9 and aims to spark an interest in the field at a young age so students begin along the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) path through high school, even if there are few other girls doing so.

At the beginning of Saturday’s program, Lisa Stepnuk spoke about her own career as an engineer and stressed the importance of proper representation.

She discussed Joy Buolamwini, a coder and engineer who discovered the racial bias in facial recognition technology.

As a woman of colour, Buolamwini was unable to have her face recognized by the technology, while the margin of error for a white male was less than one per cent.

Stepnuk said the bias was not intentional but a reflection of the people who helped develop the technology.

This year, organizers partnered with the Neil Squire Society and its Makers Making Change program to host a make-a-thon.

The society’s mission is to help improve the lives of people living with disabilities through technology. One of its creations, the LipSync, is a mouth-operated computer controller that allows people with limited or no use of their arms to operate touch-screen devices.

On Saturday, Go Eng Girl participants made their own LipSync devices. Through the Makers Making Change program they will be delivered to people who need them.

The girls were split into groups of two or three and assigned a mentor to assist them in building the devices.

Jodie, a Grade 8 student who attended the program, said she found engineering “really intriguing.”

“I was worried that I’d have to come up with something to build,” she said.

“Because I don’t know the first thing about engineering.”

Jodie was one of the many girls eager to learn about engineering as a potential career.

Sometimes, girls will come back for another year to try other programs that WISE offers, like Go Code Girl or All Girls Robot Fight Club.

This was Grade 9 student Aseel’s second year with the program, and her sister Leen’s first. Both girls are considering careers in medicine or engineering.

According to program administrator Jill Lautenschlager, with the knowledge that the girls are thinking like this, the program is doing exactly what it should be.

“I hope that they realize that there is more to engineering than just building bridges and roads and buildings and stuff like that,” she said.

“It really is a helping profession and they can make a difference in the world.”