Teen girls explore STEM careers during WE Explore Engineering Program

Advancing Women in STEM president JJ DiGeronimo encourages girls to not be stopped by ‘No’s’

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Michelle Cometa

Valeria Villa, left, an RIT undergraduate engineering student, and Kara Sweeney, right, from West Genesee High School in Syracuse, had a chance to meet JJ DiGeronimo, the keynote speaker—and inspiration for women in STEM careers—at the recent WE Explore program sponsored by the Women In Engineering Program.

If JJ DiGeronimo heard “No” when pursuing a job opportunity she was interested in, she interpreted it to mean seek another way in the door. The president of Advancing Women in STEM shared that philosophy with nearly 60 teenage girls and their parents who participated in the recent WE Explore Program at RIT.

DiGeronimo’s presentation capped two days of hands-on workshops and panels at WE Explore, one of the K-12 outreach programs sponsored by the Kate Gleason College of Engineering’s Women in Engineering Program July 17-18. Over the two days, girls going into 10th-12th grades explored possible careers in engineering, science, technology and mathematics, the STEM fields. Although women in STEM careers earn 33 percent more in salaries than those not in STEM fields, the number of women and girls pursuing degrees in these areas remains low throughout the United States, said DiGeronimo. Programs such as WE Explore highlight opportunities, and how young women overcome barriers to pursuing STEM careers.

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, society has a lot of impact on what our girls think they can do, and as they grow up and are exposed to more media, sometimes their confidence whittles away,” said DiGeronimo, who is originally from the Buffalo area and has more than 20 years experience in Silicon Valley technology companies. “When it comes to opportunities they want to pursue in areas considered more male-dominated, sometimes they feel like they should go where most of the other women are going because they are more comfortable in this area.”

The teens also heard similar messages and encouragement from current female engineering students like Valeria Villa, a third-year industrial and systems engineering student. She saw DiGeronimo as an inspiration, especially as she continues her academic career.

“It is interesting what she is doing right now, because she is inspiring women to go into STEM fields and it is important because most girls don’t realize what these fields are about and they think that they have to be very smart, very bright. But they also think, ‘If I don’t feel smart enough, then I am not going to do this,’” said Villa, whose family supported her decision to pursue engineering. Originally from Colombia and now a resident of New Milford, Conn., Villa will begin a co-op at Toyota in Texas this coming fall semester. “My family is so proud of me and they are happy that I am very happy here, having a great time and pursuing a degree that I wanted.”

At RIT, the Kate Gleason College of Engineering has seen significant growth in the number of young women applying for, and enrolling in, the college. In fall 2009, 315 young women were enrolled in undergraduate engineering majors, which was 16 percent of all undergraduate engineering students. Five years later, more than 550 young women are enrolled, nearly 22 percent of college’s engineering students.

Villa was one of several of the female engineering students helping to coordinate the WE Explore Program and meeting the high school students, including Kara Sweeney. Both enjoyed DiGeronimo’s practical approach to learning and pursuing both interesting careers—and personal interests.

“Usually everyone is telling you do what makes you happy, follow your passion, but she was like, do what will give you a good life, and still do those things that you like,” said Sweeney, who will be a senior at West Genesee High School in Syracuse this fall. Her family has encouraged her to explore engineering, and she is watching as her sister Kaleigh, an RIT industrial and systems engineering student, pursues her undergraduate degree—and career.

“In the workplace, you may be the only woman at the table, even after work there are things you may not be invited to,” DiGeronimo added during her presentation. “These are things to be aware of, but can be easily overcome and you can find your own way. Don’t be stopped by ‘no’s.’ Just think about how else you can get there, and take advantage of the opportunities.”

Related stories:

Time Warner Cable News clip: http://rochester.twcnews.com/content/news/754064/high-school-girls-take-part-in--we-explore--camp-at-rit/

Women in STEM—A Systemic Issue: http://www.rit.edu/research/feature/may-2012/women-stem—-systemic-issue