On two Saturdays this March, as happens each month from October to May, girls from area middle schools and high schools will converge on Northern Illinois University’s Naperville campus to participate in the NIU Enhancing Engineering Pathways (EEP) program’s Saturday engineering workshops.
Now in its seventh year of introducing young girls in the area to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, EEP has successfully increased awareness, enthusiasm and excitement among girls 12 years of age and older to explore and enjoy the field of engineering through hands-on activities, discussion forums and field trips, rather than watching and listening.
Assistant Electrical Engineering Professor Suma Rajashankar initiated the program in 2008 by partnering with the Girl Scouts of greater Chicago and northwest Indiana and the Girl Scouts of northern Illinois. The Motorola Solutions Foundation has funded the program for seven years.
“This program has been geared towards female students to construct careers in science and engineering, so it’s a huge mentoring chain,” Rajashankar said. “We have girls who get into the program in sixth grade, and they move on to higher hands-on engineering activities within the program in seventh and eighth grade. Once they’re in high school, they continue to mentor the middle school girls, so they get paid and they also pick up volunteer hours.”
Mentoring is a vital part of the NIU-EEP program, connecting middle and high school girls with each other as well as with college students, NIU professors and professionals from STEM fields. Mentoring also enables students to express their thoughts, ideas and emotions in constructive ways.
With help from undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, Rajashankar is able to provide a glimpse of what a career in a STEM field would look like and provide pathways to get there.
Encouraging women to join the STEM fields is a major initiative of the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, Dean Promod Vorha said, and Enhancing Engineering Pathways is one of NIU’s successful efforts in this regard.
“The Saturday workshops in Naperville engage young girls in a variety of hands-on activities that inspire girls to explore these areas of study,” Vohra said, noting that beginner and advanced activities include circuitry, lean manufacturing, computer design and even bridge building. “Through the EEP program, we hope to strengthen the pipeline of women going into STEM fields.”
Through the program, Rajashankar introduces the girls to STEM concepts like 3D printing, virtual programming, and app development. EEP meets every other Saturday at the NIU-Naperville campus from October until May, and then there is a week long camp at NIU in June where over 80 girls join the STEM fun every year.
The NIU EEP program has a very high success rate with every girl from the program going on to study a STEM field, and Rajashankar hopes it can be modeled, developed and implemented in other places across the country to broaden STEM outreach to young girls.