Getting Girls Engaged in STEM

A recent report by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee estimates that about 14 percent of engineers in the workforce across the country are women. Why are there so few female engineers, and what can be done about it? Panasonic Corporation of North America created a program for high school students designed to spur interest in STEM areas--science, technology, engineering and math--and it is showing a growing interest among girls.

The Panasonic Creative Design Challenge was founded in 1991. Panasonic established it with NJIT to encourage an interest in engineering by bringing together talented high school students to create robotic devices that can perform specific tasks. The aspiring engineers compete for college scholarship money and other prizes.

This year, some 72 high school students from two dozen schools across New Jersey competed in the six month challenge which includes building a robotic device, writing logbook entries, a written report, delivering oral presentations and ultimately engaging in a full-day robotics competition on the campus of NJIT.

For the first time, an all-girls team reached the finals. "I came last year to watch the obstacle course event and wanted to give it a try," said New Providence High School junior Sophie Dai, (pictured center) who designed and built a robot with friends Amulya Mummaneni and Sambavi Prakasam, advised by their teacher, Zachary Cohane.

In an effort to raise awareness of the role of engineering in solving environmental issues and assisting people in natural disasters, this year's Creative Design Challenge focused on remotely operated vehicles for earthquake response, and was developed by engineering interns employed by Panasonic. Two were students at NJIT, and a third was a winner of the competition in 2014.

Trying out different areas of engineering
During the final competition, which took place in April, the girls had to maneuver their robot through a simulated post-earthquake landscape and make it cross an unstable bridge, extinguish a fire and safely air drop an injured person. Ms. Dai's team admitted they had trouble making their robot do exactly what they wanted because they had never used power tools before entering the competition, and while their design looked good on paper, the ultimate machine didn't quite match aspirations. "I'm interested in biomedical engineering, but I think it's important to try different areas of engineering. This is a really good experience and I'd like to try again next year," she said.

That kind of enthusiasm is critical to getting more girls engaged in STEM subjects. A 2012 study by the Girl Scouts of America found teenage girls often don't feel welcome in STEM classrooms, they don't see the relevance of what they are learning in the classroom to the careers they want to pursue, and they don't have role models for engineering, computer software development or other STEM careers.

The all-girls team was among about a dozen girls who took part in this year's competition, and Panasonic continues to making plans to encourage more girls to participate in the program next year.

Learn more about this year's competition in Panasonic Creative Design Challenge Nurtures Interest in Engineering and Robotics.