MIT Women's Initiative Workshops at CJ

High school and elementary girls at six area Catholic schools have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore the field of engineering thanks to a national STEM youth outreach program brought specially to the Miami Valley by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) School of Engineering.

The MIT Women's Initiative is a unique program designed to inspire young women in grades 6-12 with the confidence to pursue college and career opportunities in STEM fields. Following an application process, Chaminade Julienne and grade schools St. Albert the Great, St. Christopher, St. Luke, Bishop Leibold and Mother Brunner were exclusively selected to host workshops during the week of January 13-17.

Girls work with MIT students (video)

Only 8-10 regions across the country are selected to host week-long presentations each year according to the program's director Brittany Thomas. "We felt Dayton, Ohio offered a diverse student body for us to interact with, as well as strong STEM programs that could help kids realize their goals of pursuing science," she said, citing CJ's involvement with Project Lead the Way and the partner schools' strong STEM offerings on the whole as key factors in the selection.

At CJ, more than 300 girls participated in 90-minute workshops in the new CJ STEMM Center engineering lab (St. Barbara, Room 235) all day Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 14-15. Altogether more than 600 students in the Dayton area are taking part in fun and engaging engineering activities throughout the week.

The purpose of the MIT Women's Initiative is to dispel common misconceptions and stereotypes that have contributed to the disparity that exists between men and women in engineering. To help accomplish this goal, visits are led by MIT women currently pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees across different engineering disciplines.

Workshops at all six schools were led by MIT students Mary Breton, a senior from New Jersey studying materials science and engineering; and Samantha Harper, a sophomore from Los Angeles studying civil and environmental engineering and international development.

"A lot of girls told us they liked the activity and that they had fun," said Samantha. Each workshop began with a large group presentation followed by break out sessions where girls worked in small teams to solve a challenge involving lasers and the reflective properties of materials.

The undergrads said they were both pleased with the students' inquisitiveness, and they left the girls with a few words of advice. "Keep asking questions, never be afraid to speak up and always keep an open mind."

MIT students Samantha and Mary enjoyed a homestay with Brenda and Tony Ricciuto during their week-long trip to Dayton. Brenda is a science teacher at Mother Brunner School and Tony teaches social studies at CJ.

Meg Draeger, CJ STEMM coordinator, applied for the MIT Women's Initiative for three years before finally landing the program this winter. She worked with the 6th, 7th and 8th grade science teachers to coordinate the visit and served as the regional contact for MIT.

"By interacting with these visiting MIT students, perhaps a seed can be planted in some young girls' minds and hearts that they can and should aspire to such goals," Draeger said.

According to a 2011 study published by the American Society for Engineering Education, women only accounted for about 13 percent of the engineering workforce and 18 percent of engineering bachelor's degrees obtained that year.

Not to be left out, more than 250 boys at CJ also took part in similar 90-minute presentations January 14-15 led by male STEM professionals from area organizations including the University of Dayton, GE Aviation, Wright-Patterson AFB, and Intel Corporation. The Dayton chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and UD's Minority Engineering Program helped identify and recruit many of the male presenters, Draeger said.

"The objective is to expose all our students to the world of STEM as a potential college program of study and career field," she said.