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Young engineers program increases diversity in engineering

Students build a card tower.

In small groups, high school students built lake-viewing platforms out of playing cards for fictional stakeholders in their first hands-on project of the Young Engineers Shape the World fall program. Photo by: Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

September 28, 2018

In only its second year, the Young Engineers Shape the World program is exposing high school students in the Phoenix metro area to opportunities available in engineering in an effort to help bolster diversity in the industry and increase the representation of women in engineering.

“As a black woman going into engineering, there’s not a lot of people who look like me, and I’m sure other people of marginalized communities feel the same,” said Brittine Young, a mechanical engineering student at Arizona State University who volunteered for the program. “It’s really important to create a system of support so people don’t feel so alone. You can relate to your counterparts and your peers only so much.”

Young Engineers Shape the World left its pilot phase on Sept. 15 with a kickoff conference for high school students and their parents on ASU’s Tempe campus. The free program, organized by the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, targets underrepresented groups in the engineering industry, like women, first-generation college students and students who demonstrate financial need.

“In order to solve problems effectively, we need to have people who have been living those problems and have unique perspectives,” said Lauren Preble, a K–12 engineering education and outreach coordinator at the Fulton Schools. “That’s why increasing diversity is so important. Students from diverse backgrounds bring different life experiences with them when they enter an engineering program, and that diversity is what we need for problems this profession will face.”

After a morning of seminars providing information about the program and financial aid and college-readiness provided by Access ASU, the high school students broke into groups for a design challenge to encourage teamwork and problem solving. With nothing but a ruler, deck of playing cards and tape, the teams were commissioned by a fictional stakeholder, Seeking Peace And Rejuvenation Kayaking Society (SPARKS), to design a lake-viewing platform. 

After 55 minutes of designing and building, the teams presented their structures. Each group’s platform was different — some built from rolled-up playing cards, while others assembled a more traditional card tower. Fictitious stakeholders, played by current engineering students or recent alumni, gave the high school students feedback on their designs, but the main takeaway was: Engineers ask questions, and students should too.

Throughout the semester, the Young Engineers Shape the World high schoolers will attend three-hour Saturday workshops to let them explore different specializations of engineering through hands-on learning experiences like the ones at the kickoff conference. Additional events like the Evening with Engineers Industry Nights allow students to ask questions and network with industry professionals.

The workshops are held at ASU's Tempe, Downtown Phoenix and Polytechnic campuses, and at the Tolleson Union High School District Office in the West Valley. The high schoolers participating in the program come from all over; one student drove two and a half hours to attend the kickoff conference.

In addition to the free, hands-on learning experience, if students at least 12 different workshop events, an Evening with Engineers Industry Night and an information session about applying to Fulton Schools, they could potentially earn one of 50 $1,000 scholarships that goes toward an engineering degree at ASU.

During the program’s first year, 98 students participated in at least one Young Engineers Shape the World event. This year, 174 applicants have been accepted, and the program team is looking forward to accepting more students next year. Increased registration is pushing the program to grow to potentially larger classrooms and additional weekend sessions.

“I have done programs through ASU’s school of engineering in the past,” said Abby Thielen, a 10th-grader from Phoenix. “I thought this program was really cool, especially because it’s free and when I first heard about it, it was only for women too.”

Kate Thielen, a high school senior from Phoenix, appreciates the program for opening her eyes to new opportunities in engineering.

“I have a strong interest in the medical field, and I spend a lot of time on other medical programs,” Thielen said. “College is around the corner and I really want to experience as much as possible. I had never thought about the environmental aspect of engineering before.”

One of the Thielen’s teammates, Aditya Mehta, said he would definitely come back for more Young Engineers Shape the World workshops.

“Engineering is the thing I want to pursue,” said the Chandler high schooler, who also has attended other ASU camps in the past. “This event is a great opportunity to see how everything works. There are so many opportunities, and I think that’s really cool.”

Even after just one year of the program, participants such as Loren Kueker have gone on to study engineering at ASU. Kueker was already attracted to the problem-solving and building aspects of engineering, but found the collaboration at the Young Engineers Shape the World events made a difference in understanding how engineering works.

“Communication is one of the biggest parts of engineering,” Kueker said. “People don’t understand that, but they should. With YESW, at the Saturday events, you’re able to meet and network with people. You’re learning to work with other people who just met that weekend.”

In the pilot phase, Young Engineers Shape the World set the program up at schools throughout the Valley and on the Tempe campus. When Kueker was in high school, one of her teachers introduced the program to Verrado High School.

“I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to go into engineering, but it showed me more options than I knew about before,” Kueker said. “It showed me how multiple engineers collaborate on a project.”

Over the next year, Kueker continued attending workshops at her high school. Now a freshman at ASU, Kueker studies chemical engineering within the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy. She is interested in getting involved in Young Engineers Shape the World again in the future, but this time as a mentor.

“I think that Young Engineers Shape the World was really inspiring,” Kueker said. “It brought more people to the engineering field — girls like me who weren’t sure if engineering was right for them. It really opened my eyes and made me believe I could do well in engineering.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1744539. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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