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Women in Engineering

WE@RIT Achieves Outreach Success with the Engineering Open House

On November 7, 2015 WE@RIT attempted something brave and new:  opening the doors of Kate Gleason College of Engineering (KGCOE) to girls in grades 5-9, their parents and their educators.  No registration fees and no RSVP’s meant little idea of what to expect for WE@RIT, but the event proved wildly successful with roughly 550 people attending.  Billed as a “buffet of engineering,” the idea was the brainchild of Program Director Kathy Ehrlich-Scheffer, carried out with support from the WE@RIT Advisory Board.  Following is a Q&A with Kathy.

Q: What were you trying to achieve with the WE@RIT Engineering Open House?

A: Four things: removing barriers to program access for those in the K-12 world; improving the reach of our pro engineering messaging; involving parents, community leaders and educators in the conversation about engineering possibilities for their girls, and improving upon the quality and number of major-specific leadership roles for the women of KGCOE.

Q: That sounds ambitious.  How did you do?

A: With the help of over 80 female student leaders, the support of the WE@RIT Advisory Board, and the involvement of dedicated faculty from each of our engineering disciplines, we hit it out of the park!    We had a number of schools opt to bus students in for the event, giving students an opportunity to hear our messaging about engineering that they otherwise would not have benefitted from.  We saw more unique touches in the four hours that the open house ran than we did in all of our previous outreach efforts combined.  We heard from parents, teachers and leaders of community groups that this was the event they’d been waiting for.   Finally, we created dozens upon dozens of new opportunities for the female students of KGCOE to step into leadership roles that tied into their engineering majors.  In terms of meeting its program goals, the Engineering Open House far exceeded expectations.

Q: What role do students play in the Engineering Open House (EOH)?

A: A pivotal one.  The whole idea behind the EOH is to present to the visiting K12 community with a powerful visual and experience: a veritable wall of female engineering role models from the time they walk in the door until the time they walk back out of it.  Research shows that in order to have an impact on combatting explicit bias (the idea that boys are innately better at math/science/engineering), we need to deliberately and repeatedly expose our girls (and boys) to positive female role models in the STEM fields.  We’re lucky at KGCOE that we have no shortage of those, with women comprising 25% of our engineering students, well above the national average.

Each Engineering Department Head nominates female students from their majors to represent the department in the EOH.  If they accept the nomination, these students become the Open House Leadership Team, and are in charge of identifying, planning/designing and staffing 3-5 activities per department.  They also undergo a design review of their activities with WE@RIT and the team of EOH Faculty Advisors, prepare activity hand-outs for visiting students and adults, and staff the activities with additional women from their major.  Being on the EOH Leadership Team is no small task and represents a major undertaking for these students, who are concurrently busy with classes, activities and jobs.  The benefit to them is that they gain planning, project management, leadership, communication and presentation skills that all tie back to their majors; it is a resume-worthy endeavor that sets these women apart from others.

Q: What’s next for the Engineering Open House?

A: I continue to network with colleagues from across the country in order to tweak and improve upon our initial success.  In coming years we’d like to see even more female leaders from KGCOE participate, and we’d like to expand to include activities for younger siblings of those attending.  Additionally, we foresee reaching out to our alumni network to engage them in the day as well.

In the Fall of 2016 WE@RIT Advisory Board Member Dr. Marca Lam and I will be presenting a session at the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Annual Conference, entitled “Re-engineering K-12 Outreach: WE@RIT Engineering Open House.”  While we’ll be the session presenters, there’s an old adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it; I have no doubt that in networking with colleagues from across the country we will continue to improve upon what we began last fall. 

Q: Where can we find out more?

A: I’m glad you asked!  Just click here.

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