When she signed up for the Johns Hopkins University’s Engineering Innovation program this summer, Amelia Mossy, a rising senior at Urbana High School, did not expect to have a lot of female company.
Based on an undergraduate introductory engineering course at Johns Hopkins University, the intense, four-week program — which is taking place at Tuscarora High School until July 27 — allows students to apply engineering concepts to real-life problems.
With its focus on engineering, the program allows students to earn college credit by building robots, testing electrical currents, constructing spaghetti bridges and delving into electronics.
Amelia, who is thinking of pursuing a career in engineering like her father, found it fascinating. But she didn’t think it would appeal to many other female students.
“I though I was going to be the only girl,” Amelia said last week as she worked on a project that required her to build a functioning mouse trap using cardboard, rubber bands and a paperclip.
She is not the only female student in the program now, but she does remain in the minority.
Of the 36 students in the program this year, only eight — or 22.2 percent — are female, less than the 33 percent female enrollment the program had last year.
For advocates such as Nicolette Moberly — who are seeking to increase the number of women working in the fields of science, technology, math and engineering — those numbers illustrate a nationwide challenge, which affects not only school and college programs but the entire industry.
Nationally, women represent about 15 percent of the engineering work force, said Moberly, a former software engineer who works at Cisco and has been involved in a variety of Frederick County programs that promote engineering and technology education.
“Locally we have done really well,” she said. “We have always exceeded the national average.”
But if Frederick County educators want to continue to advance in that direction, there is more work to do, Moberly said.
Although Frederick County offers middle and high school STEM programs, Moberly has been talking to schools Superintendent Theresa Alban about expanding those options for elementary students.
“If we don’t engage girls early, they are not going to wake up one day and say ‘I want to be an engineer,’” Moberly said. “We need to begin planting the seeds earlier.”
Frederick County schools has some initiatives that promote interest in STEM, but these programs typically are targeted at specific student subgroups, she said. For example, the 10-day summer Young Scholars program, which took place at Monocacy and Hillcrest elementary schools earlier this summer, was designed to serve minorities and low-income students.
“I want a program that is available to everybody,” said Moberly.
Kim Day, the school system STEM coordinator, said Frederick County has tried to offer more STEM programs to students earlier than high school.
A Frederick County science teacher also runs the Women in Science and Engineering (W.I.S.E.) club, which aims to help high school girls to prepare for careers in these fields. But, for the most part, the programs offered by the school system are focused on all students, Day said.
When programs are successful and get girls involved in engineering and technology, female students often can outperform their male peers, said Paul Hoyt, a teacher in the pre-engineering academy at Tuscarora High School, who is in his fourth year as a teaching fellow for the Engineering Innovation program.
Because girls come to the program without any preconceived notions, they often are not afraid to experiment and think outside the box, Hoyt said.
Girls also tend to do well in the program’s final project, which requires students to apply their knowledge of physics and build a spaghetti bridge that can support as muc as 60 times more than its own weight.
For at least the past two years, the winning teams working on that project included only girls or two girls and a boy, Hoyt said.
“I try to get more girls involved every year,” Hoyt said. “Ideally, I would like that number to go from eight to 18.”
Kimberlee Powell, a rising senior at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, said she heard about the Engineering Innovation program from a speaker who came to one of her classes.
Powell, who is thinking of studying international relations in college, said she wanted to enroll in the program to get a taste of engineering and see if that may be another career she may want to consider.
“I know this is a really desired degree and I just wanted to try it,” Powell said. “I didn’t want to say I don’t want to go into engineering without having tried it.”