Girls in STEM: How One University Breaks Down Gender Barriers

On November 13, Ontario Tech hosted their very first online FuturEng All-Girl Conference, an opportunity to encourage high school girls to become more involved in engineering and to close the gender gap in STEM. 

The meeting kicked off with a message from OntarioTech’s very own dean, Dr. Hassam Kishawy, beginning with an inspirational message about the core of engineering — as he describes it: “engineers love problems!”

The conference itself is run by a mixture of Engineering Outreach and Women in Engineering, the latter of which is run by volunteer engineering students at Ontario Tech. High school girls in grades 11 and 12 were able to meet with undergraduate students. “I did it last year, and I loved it so much I’m back!” said one student from Port Perry High School when asked about her experience. 

Despite limitations of an online format, participants were still able to learn how to use Arduinos, beginning with a lesson on the different components and with a handy illustrated manual. Using TinkerCAD, participants could work on Arduino Boards online, incorporating coding concepts from JavaScript with electrical engineering skills. 

Afterwards, participants were invited to have lunch as an academic advisor spoke about her role in helping students decide what school is best for them. She spoke about the different factors that many students should take into consideration when selecting schools, such as extracurriculars, communities, research opportunities, even the size of the campus and location. 

“The best way to know what field you want to do is to always, always ask, you gotta ask questions; there’s no stupid questions,”

– a volunteer mechanical engineering undergraduate, speaking about her experience in finding her passion. 

The co-op and internship officer was also available to answer any questions and talk about the importance of gaining experience and working with different companies, creating connections that can help later on in careers.

Throughout the lunch period, undergraduate students in the different disciplines of engineering spoke about their experience and what attracted them to pursuing engineering.

“I have always had a passion for STEM! Engineering seemed like a good choice because it introduced endless creative problem solving opportunities”

Rachel Lynds, a 5th year mechanical engineering student, describing how she eventually made the decision to pursue engineering.

Moreover, to aid students in choosing an engineering discipline, an hour was dedicated to speed networking, where participants were provided with the opportunity to speak with industry professionals. Software, mechanical, chemical, and many more engineers were provided, working for notable companies such as Hydro One, IBM, and Microsoft.

After a very interactive lunch period, the highlight of the conference arrived, the Spaghetti Engineering Challenge! The week before, participants received a loot bag in the mail, containing the necessary items for the challenge, as well as a custom FuturEng mask, pen, notebook, and their yearly women in STEM calendar. The challenge involved 25 pieces of spaghetti, split evenly between a student and parent, as well as two marshmallows, providing participants with 3 minutes to create the biggest O possible. The pair with the largest O and the student with the largest O were then mailed a prize in the following week.

Eden Hennessey describes her photo exhibit, #TurningTablesinSTEM

Finally, keynote speaker Eden Henessey returned to provide an engaging and inspiring talk entitled, “You’re Already an Engineer.” Her main focus was on the overlap in traits that many of the participants reported embracing and those of engineers, as she spoke about gender identity and its impact on female enrollment in STEM disciplines. Hennessey is a social psychologist who focuses on the role of sexism in science, and she showcased her creation,  #TurningTablesinSTEM, described as “A photo-research exhibit celebrating girls and women in science.”

Examples of student submissions for the “Draw an Engineer” test.

She also spoke about the gender gap in STEM fields, the concept of identity interference, and the all too common perceived conflict between femininity and the typical traits of an engineer. Hennessey’s presentation concluded with her revisiting the commonly known “Draw an Engineer Test”, where more women than ever are being drawn when children are asked to draw an engineer, inspiring students to continue breaking gender norms. 

Considering this conference’s position as the very first virtual FuturEng conference, the team at Ontario Tech university was still able to produce an engaging, educational, and above all, inspiring workshop.