Health Care

Girls Engineering Change wants to close gender gap in engineering

Duke senior Dutch Waanders and students put the finishing touches on a solar-powered USB charger as part of Girls Engineering Change.
Duke senior Dutch Waanders and students put the finishing touches on a solar-powered USB charger as part of Girls Engineering Change. GIRLS ENGINEERING CHANGE

“Isn’t engineering for guys?” As a high school senior, Christine Schindler heard comments like that over and over when she decided to study biomedical engineering at Duke University.

“My family really encouraged me to pursue a career in engineering,” Schindler said. “But it was impossible to ignore the huge gender gap between men and women in the field.”

Only 18 to 20 percent of engineers across the U.S. are women, and only 18 percent of those studying to be engineers in universities are women, according to a recent article published by American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Those statistics motivated Schindler, now a senior at Duke, to found Girls Engineering Change in summer 2012, a nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in engineering.

Girls Engineering Change focuses on connecting local middle school and high school girls with college mentors to help them learn develop a better understanding of what engineering is like. Schindler and her team hold monthly events during which girls work with mentors to build things like medical equipment testers, clean-burning stoves and water filters.

“We usually try to pair one mentor with two girls,” Schindler said. “And the girls get to experience lots of different curriculums.” Over the summer, the girls built solar-powered USB chargers that were donated to the American Red Cross.

Learning and fun

Girls Engineering Change partners with different organizations, which then send them supplies and designs for products. Before an event, Schindler will reach out to schools and museums in the area to ask girls to come. Her team will also reserve a lab space where the girls can work. After the products are made, they are sent back to the partnering organization. Because Schindler’s vision was to connect health issues to engineering, the partnering organization is often one tied to global health.

“The girls really enjoy these events because they get to learn something new, even if they didn’t want to come at first,” she said. “They really like working with their mentors, and we get awesome feedback from their parents as well. We’re trying to dispel the stereotypes surrounding engineering and show the girls that they can be engineers if they want to be.”

Dutch Waanders, chief programming officer of Girls Engineering Change and a Duke senior, also volunteers as a mentor.

“It’s awesome being a mentor,” he said. “I get to meet two new girls with completely different aspirations and see their perceptions of engineering and themselves change.”

Waanders said he thinks it’s important to decrease the gender gap in engineering because there is already a significant shortage of engineers compared with the population. With so few women in the field, misrepresentation can result in needs for the rest of the population being overlooked.

“My next door neighbor is an engineer,” Waanders said. “She came out of college and got a job with a really great salary, but she had to work alongside a lot of men who were older than her and (she) really didn’t enjoy it. Now she switched to another firm, and I think she enjoys it a lot more because there are younger people and more women.”

Girls Engineering Change will hold their first event of the semester this Saturday in conjunction with Duke SPLASH, an organization that helps middle school and high school students participate in small, interactive seminars taught by Duke students. The girls will build interactive electrocardiogram simulators that will be donated to the nonprofit group Engineering World Health.

That session is full, but others are planned.

Schindler said the growing GEC organization has reached more than 500 girls and has spread to a handful of other universities, including UNC and Cornell. Schindler and the group have also gotten attention from U.S. News and the the Clinton Global Initiative.

“I’m really fortunate to have a lot of people on board,” she said. “We’re really excited about becoming a nonprofit and seeing so much growth in the last two years.”