Women engineering students mentor girls, teach their discipline’s concepts through TechGYRLS
Junior Kassandra Almen of Little Falls, Minn., describes herself as a “gadget girl” who grew up helping her dad fix things on the family’s hobby farm.
Her interest in fixing things and her math and science abilities led her to NDSU where she is majoring in electrical engineering with an emphasis in biomedical engineering. She is also a mentor to the next generation of gadget girls by volunteering for TechGYRLS, a 10-week after-school program that encourages girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math concepts.
Led by NDSU women engineering students, third through seventh grade girls in the program learn engineering principles and participate in a variety of activities that allow them to apply the concepts, said junior Autumn McDougall of Maple Grove, Minn., who leads NDSU’s TechGYRLS program.
Activities range from designing a Lego robot and blasting a rocket to learning about forensics and building model bridges. The robot project is one of the most popular. “They feel really accomplished when they finish a robot,” McDougall said. It takes about six hours to build and program an alligator robot to open and close its jaws and to move forward.
How TechGYRLS started
TechGYRLS is a national program created by the YWCA of the USA in 1997 “in response to the widening gender gap in exposure to and interest in technology for girls,” according to the National Girls Collaborative Project.
The American Society of Engineering Educators reports that 81.9 percent of people who earned undergraduate engineering degrees in 2010 were male, while only 18.1 percent were female. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce report, the gender gap “leaves an untapped opportunity to expand STEM employment in the United States, even as there is wide agreement that the nation must do more to improve its competitiveness.”
TechGYRLS was offered for the first time at NDSU, in partnership with the YWCA Cass Clay, in spring 2003, said Canan Bilen-Green, professor in industrial and manufacturing engineering and interim director of the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute. Bilen-Green helped establish the local TechGYRLS program as a way to help close the gender gap in engineering education and careers.
The program has gone over well with parents and the girls. Many participants ask whether a TechGYRLS II is offered. “They want to come back for more,” Bilen-Green said. “It has been well received.”
Forty girls participated in TechGYRLS in fall 2011, McDougall said.
Members of the Society of Women Engineers run TechGYRLS, completing administrative tasks and teaching the classes, on a volunteer basis. “I’m impressed by how much they care about it an how much time they put into it,” said Bilen-Green, who is faculty adviser for the organization.
In addition to organizing and teaching, the NDSU students become mentors to participants. Almen felt like a celebrity when she saw a group of TechGYRLS participants at a local yogurt shop. “They look up to us,” she said, noting the NDSU students make an impact that lasts long after the TechGYRLS classes are completed.
Bilen-Green believes women engineering students serving as mentors to girls and women faculty serving as mentors to women students is an important part of closing the gender gap in engineering education and careers.
“Parents are so glad we do this program,” McDougall said. “It shows the girls it’s not a dorky thing to like math and science.”
The spring session of TechGYRLS begins Jan. 23. For more information, visit the College of Engineering and Architecture website.