I always wanted to be an engineer, but as a child of the ’80s, I had limited exposure to engineering in middle or high school—and when I took seventh-grade wood shop, I got my first taste of sexism from male peers—and from the teacher.
In high school, I loved auto shop, but the advanced class time conflicted with calculus (Obviously the school didn’t plan for future engineers who wanted to take both shop and high-level math.)
Luckily, kids today, girls especially, have better options.
If anything demonstrates the exciting potential for women in STEM, it’s the You Go Girl (YGG) program at Olathe Northwest high school in Olathe, Kan. I wish it had been there when I was a fifth grader deciding what to be when I grew up.
YGG was developed within Olathe Northwest’s FIRST Robotics Team 1710, which is part of the school’s 21st-century Engineering Academy and, in turn, affiliated with the global FIRST program to promote STEM study and careers that has touched 400,000 students in 80 countries.
YGG’s motto is “to further inspire and empower” girls’ confidence in their STEM skills and potential. Its simplicity underscores its elegance—to show that women in STEM are completely normal.
Schools have long tried to get more girls into science, technology, engineering and math. Barriers include too few role models and lack of early skills exposure. With empowerment, encouragement and originality, YGG fielded an Olathe robotics team that is 42% female.
“It’s amazing to see excitement on girls’ faces when they realize what they can do in STEM,” the 2017 Team 1710 CEO Megan Wheeler tells me. Teams are run like companies, with students as CEOs and in business development roles.
“We strive to create an environment where nobody is telling them they’re doing it wrong. A large part of engineering is … doing things in new ways,” she says. “It’s important to encourage people to follow their passion, since you never know where it will take them.”
Megan now studies industrial engineering at Kansas State University.
YGG focuses on critical mentoring relationships. Mentors stress how each girl can progress in STEM from interested sixth grader to involved high school junior to employed adult.
And YGG continues to have impact long after—for girls and their mentors.
Stephani Jamar, one of the first girls on the Olathe robotics team, says the experience convinced her to return as a mentor.
She credits an older brother and a male robotics team coach for pushing her to join but says female role models and mentors she encountered, “who had a passion for STEM,” were critical in her career direction.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but [they] … allowed me to see a STEM field as a possible future,” says Stephani, now an interiors designer with Hoefer Wysocki Architecture.
“There is nothing strange about a boy picking up a hammer. There shouldn’t be for a girl either,” says Charly Wang. She is current Team 1710 CEO.
That’s the message that's been shared with 11,000 girls YGG has connected with since its start—through workshops, camps, field trips and competitions.
YGG also reaches into middle and elementary schools through its STEM Connection program so older girls can share with younger ones that engineering and robotics are definitely cool.
Younger girls see a safe place to focus on and enjoy STEM in a supportive community. By high school, they’re ready to dive right in.
Being at a robotics competition as a fifth grader sparked Jerusha Rowden to ask herself: “Could I do that?” The answer soon was clear, and she joined the robotics team immediately in high school.
Now a senior, Jerusha says she is active in STEM Connection and looks ahead to an engineering management career.
YGG students I’ve met are confident they can be engineers, experienced in engineering problem-solving and enthusiastic about their future success.
With my own son now a sophomore at Olathe Northwest’s Engineering Academy and interested in steel bridge engineering, I am living vicariously through him and his classmates.
What a difference the years make.
As a high school student, I was apprehensive about a male-dominated field and isolated from most of my female peers, who had vastly different career goals.
I can’t even imagine how different high school would have been with a program like YGG around.
Robynn Andracsek is an associate environmental engineer at Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City, Mo. She can be reached at email@example.com