Jennifer Boykin broke some stereotypes when she was young.
She was the first girl to play Little League baseball in St. Louis. She excelled in math and science, encouraged by her father, an engineer for an aerospace company.
When she earned a degree in marine engineering from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1986, less than 9 percent of her graduating class were women.
Nearly three decades later, Boykin is vice president for engineering and design at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, where nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines are built for the Navy.
With just 13 percent of the engineers in her own workforce women, she wants to encourage young women and girls to start breaking molds themselves.
“I think any and everything we can do to increase the number of girls who are sticking with math and science, the stronger the future of our country is going to be,” she said.
Especially now. The National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit educational research group, found that women earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering declined slightly in the past decade, from 20 percent in 2004 to 19 percent in 2014, despite efforts to bring more women into the field.
Boykin is a mentor through the women in engineering program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and she also works closely with Virginia Commonwealth University’s engineering program. She also helped start GEMS – Girls With Engineering Minds – a new after-school program at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Newport News.
Navy shipbuilding doesn’t have a shortage of engineers, but it’s always looking ahead to how to fill future needs, Boykin said. Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, runs an apprenticeship school and partners with universities in Virginia and North Carolina on internship programs that lead to jobs.
Shineka Dixon, who works at the shipyard as a structural engineer, was one of those interns in 1997 when she was earning her engineering degree at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University in Greensboro.
Dixon grew up in Newport News, where her public high school offered engineering and drafting classes.
“The only unique thing was I was the only female in my drafting classes,” she said. “I went to summer programs for architecture and engineering classes during high school and I was the only female then as well.”
At North Carolina A&T, there were other women in her classes and women who were professors, as well. The school’s College of Engineering has been about 30 percent to 40 percent women, said its dean, Robin N. Coger.
“What helps in our environment is that you’ve got such a wide variety of people you get to see every day,” Coger said. “Does it matter that you get to see women faculty members? Yes it does. But it also matters that you get to see women students who are leading in the field.”
Coger was the founder of what is now the Center for Biomedical Engineering and Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She was also a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Science there before she joined North Carolina A&T, a historically black university, in 2011. Her research is in solving problems related to engineered organs, with a focus on liver replacement devices.
She said that engineers should be ambassadors who help others consider the field, especially women and African-Americans, who also are underrepresented.
“It really behooves our country’s future that we’re looking for talent in every package that it comes in,” Coger said.
Students at her school are part of that outreach. Shimika Bowers, a graduate student in computer science, recently helped judge a high school robotics competition at the university. Girls won awards at the event, and their numbers at competitions like that one are growing, Bowers said.
“I think now it’s not as difficult as it was 20 years ago,” she said, but added, “I think our young girls need to be pushed more to science and math – that it’s OK to be smart in those areas.”
To foster that attitude, the business-backed group DiscoverE organizes an annual Engineers Week – which is this week – offering programs around the country to introduce girls to engineering.
The Kansas City section of the Society of Women Engineers will hold its fifth annual “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” on Friday. Last year the group’s president, Sunita Lavin, made a hands-on activity for 200 high school girls. All of them worked on making mini oil spills with pipecleaner animals and different materials, such as gauze and wood chips, to keep oil away from a pretend beach.
“They were so creative,” Lavin said. “All the different ideas they were coming up with. Even if you tell them things, their brains are cranking: ‘How can I do it better?’”
Others are considering the power of television to inspire. The National Academy of Engineering and the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering recently launched “The Next MacGyver,” a crowd-sourcing competition to create a new TV series about a woman engineer who, like the character Angus MacGyver of the ABC series three decades ago, uses her skills to save the day.
Hollywood mentors for the competition include Lori McCreary, CEO and co-founder with actor Morgan Freeman of Revelations Entertainment. McCreary also is a computer scientist.
Rocio Chavela, manager of faculty development for the American Society for Engineering Education, assembles groups of experts to discuss engineering in higher education, including efforts to bring women into the field.
The gender gap in engineering, Chavela said, “is all related to our cultures and our beliefs.” Girls in high school perform as well in math as boys do, but there’s still a stereotype that girls can’t do math, she said.
Women as role models in engineering help break the stereotypes. Over the past 30 years, there are more of them.
“There were very few, if any, women in technical leadership roles when I started,” said Boykin of Newport News Shipbuilding. “In fact, I would say none. That created a challenge that doesn’t exist today.”
She became a superintendent on aircraft carrier construction at age 30, when she was the only woman on the construction management team.
“Other women at my level now – I know we all feel the same way,” Boykin said. “We want to make sure we are sounding boards and we can help and we are accessible for those who are going through that part of their career today.”