Over the years, women have joined the ranks of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals in increasing numbers. Although women have a greater role in the sciences than ever before, they are still severely underrepresented in some fields, such as engineering and computer science. But Carnegie Mellon University is combatting the gender biases that often discourage women from joining the tech world—with clearly visible results. In the 2017 incoming class, the percentage of female first-year undergraduates enrolled in the School of Computer Science is 48%, and 43% in the College of Engineering.

One way that Carnegie Mellon is combatting these gender biases is through the Summer Engineering Experience for Girls (SEE). Founded in 2007 and run by the Engineering Research Accelerator, the program brings 27 local rising seventh and eighth grade girls to campus to foster their curiosity in STEM. The SEE program aims to reveal the influence middle school girls can have on the world by acquiring advanced math and science skills early on. During this program, current Carnegie Mellon undergraduates, like Mechanical Engineering (MechE) and Biomedical Engineering (BME) senior India Price, work alongside faculty to encourage the girls to chase their interests in STEM as they pursue high school diplomas, and eventually, college degrees.

“The overarching goal of this program is to help young girls realize their interest in science and technology,” says Price. “A lot of the girls really like math or physics or chemistry, but they don’t really know what opportunities are out there. This program is designed to expose them to all kinds of engineering and help them start thinking about the possible careers they might want to pursue.”

For two weeks each summer, middle school girls enrolled in the SEE program explore multidisciplinary engineering approaches through hands-on activities that emphasize the use of energy in efficient and environmentally friendly ways. Students also collaborate on their own research projects related to energy and the environment, and at the end of the program, they create a research poster to share what they’ve learned with their parents and peers.    

“I was the one who stayed with the students every day—from the moment they got dropped off, to the moment they got picked up,” says Price. “I took them to all their activities and helped them with their research projects, making sure their questions weren’t too broad and helping them fine-tune their technical topics.”

Some analyzed how to use biomass to power devices, while others studied the advantages and disadvantages of zero energy homes. Price says she was impressed with the students’ ability to present complex research in front of a large audience.

They’re starting to realize that their generation of young girls really matters in the STEM world… I just remember taking a step back and thinking, ‘This program is a really big deal.’

India Price, Senior, Mechanical Engineering & Biomedical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

“They really shocked me with their maturity. They were able to grasp a lot of important, adult topics, which was really cool to see,” she says. “It was very impressive, and I think the parents loved it.”

By introducing students—in particular, young girls—to these ideas in middle school, educators help them sustain their interest in science and technology throughout the rest of their academic careers.

Sometimes, all it takes is one teacher to help a young student realize their interest in STEM. CMU’s Summer Engineering Experience for Girls plays a crucial role in helping young girls understand just how much they can accomplish by pursuing their scientific passions.

“They’re starting to realize that their generation of young girls really matters in the STEM world,” says Price. “Everything you do matters as a woman in STEM. It’s so important to do your best and work hard to get where you need to be. There are so many young girls who think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ I just remember taking a step back and thinking, ‘This program is a really big deal.’ I thought it was so awesome how much the girls were interested in everything.”

The 2017 SEE program was funded by EQT and the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance (PITA) and is administered by Alicia Angemeer, broader impacts manager in the College of Engineering.