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    Student outreach draws women to STEM

    Queen’s Engineering student volunteers participate in a wide range of community outreach and partnership initiatives throughout the year. 

    [Robogals outreach with young girls]
    Robogals Operations Manager, Heather Litwiller (Sc’18), works with outreach program participants on programming EV3 Robots.(Supplied Photo)

    The Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science (FEAS) dedicates significant resources to initiatives designed specifically to meet and engage community, industry, and alumni partners.

    But not every community outreach initiative from Queen’s Engineering is driven by the faculty.

    Many initiatives, under the umbrella of the Engineering Society of Queen’s University (EngSoc), have deep community, industry, and alumni connections. These are projects conceived, planned, and executed almost entirely by volunteer students.

    One issue on which engineering students are working to affect positive change in the wider world is the gender imbalance in STEM fields, particularly in engineering. There are more students and faculty who are women in Queen’s Engineering than ever before and more are coming every year. Still, only a little more than 30 per cent of first-year students are women, and women account for only about 13 per cent of licensed engineers in Canada. It’s a complicated issue but getting girls and young women interested in STEM fields early is one of the keys to moving those numbers closer to parity.

    Queen’s Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) is a student club that, among other things, runs youth outreach programs on campus and in primary and secondary schools around Kingston. The club’s activities are specifically designed to get girls interested in STEM before they start making decisions about what to do after high school. It’s all about making opportunities for young people to see women as role models, not only for girls, but for boys, teachers, faculty, and for one another.

    Queen’s WiSE Coordinator Kenzie Spence (Sc’20), and Queen’s WiSE President Beatrice Kaiser (Sc’18) are two of the more than 100 Queen’s WiSE volunteers. (University Communications)

    “We received an email from a parent whose child attended one of our school outreach programs,” says Queen’s WiSE President, Beatrice Kaiser (Sc’18). “Her daughter decided after our program that she wants to become a scientist. That’s impactful on me. It’s just so exciting when you hear kids say, ‘I want to be an engineer. I want to be scientist.’”

    The Queen’s chapter of Robogals is another growing student outreach program. It’s one of more than 30 Robogals chapters around the world that aim to inspire young women into STEM fields through exposure to robotics. Here at Queen’s, Robogals hosts a series of fun workshops in which local kids learn some robotics basics, just as first-year Queen’s Engineering students do, with Lego EV3 robots. Some of the workshops are all-girls but many are co-educational.

    “I was lucky that my parents encouraged me to pursue STEM early on,” says Queen’s Robogals Operations Manager, Heather Litwiller (Sc’18). “But when I was in high school one of the reasons girls chose not to go into computing or physics was because they’re kind of isolating, solitary pursuits. You have to work on them by sitting at a desk by yourself. I love Robogals because it’s social. We give groups of girls robots and laptops and they’re chatting, laughing, working together. STEM becomes a way for them to make friends while at the same time seeing future career options.”

    Both WiSE and Robogals liaise regularly with STEM education professionals in FEAS’ full-time youth outreach operation, Connections.

    “There’s a lot of new collaboration with Queen’s Engineering Outreach Lead, Scott Compeau,” Kaiser says. “We share school contacts, support, equipment, and information, and we work together to ensure our programs don’t overlap to the point of redundancy.”

    In the end, the students of WiSE and Robogals are working to tear down barriers to entry in STEM fields, not to create new ones or to foment division. Perhaps the best outcome will be that gender becomes irrelevant to academic or aspirational potential in STEM.

    “Our main mission is to get more women involved in STEM,” says Queen’s Robogals President, Madeline MacLean (Sc’18). “We don’t exclude boys. We have guys on our executive every year and it’s important for guys to be welcome here. It’s almost a solidarity thing.

    This article was first published on the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science website