ME Shop Skills for Girls Program Inadvertently Teaches Leadership Skills

By Alaina G. Levine

Students assembling their lamps, photo by Stephanie Locks

Designing a lamp may seem like a simple enterprise, but for Cornell University's ASME student section, it served as a way to enlighten high school girls about the exhilaration of being an engineer and empower them to see that they can be successful in the profession.

"There was a time in my life [in high school] when I was not sure of what I want to do," recalls Melissa Hamada, project co-leader and a junior in electrical and computer engineering. "We wanted to help girls find the confidence to pursue this cool major, and give them the opportunity to see and know that there are strong, successful women in mechanical engineering."

In partnership with Cornell's chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, the students created a 3-day after-school event for high school girls to gain critical computer and shop skills and a deeper comprehension of mechanical engineering (ME) and the engineering design and development process. Another goal was to enable the girls to hone their own leadership abilities to lead projects at their school. As such, the students were selected based on STEM activities in which they were already involved, such as Science Olympiad, AP science and math classes, and a robotics club, with the hope that they would take their knowledge back to their teams.

Student using lathe and mill, photo by Brittany Wun

The project was straightforward: the girls were charged with drafting and building their own lamp. They spent the first day learning about engineering design and how to use programs like SolidWorks to accomplish their tasks. They also received training on the lathe and mill, a crucial piece of the mission, to bolster the girls' consideration of mechanical engineering as a career. Indeed, "one girl said she was interested in ME but her advisor didn't have time to train her in the shop," recalls Hamada. With fewer girls taking shop class than boys, "girls are not getting the training, and therefore aren't as involved as boys in hands-on building," adds Stephanie Locks, project co-leader and a senior majoring in ME. "This was a way we could make a difference to give these girls the hands-on experience. By learning how to work on the lathe and mill, it gives them the ability to bring their designs to fruition."

The opportunity was important to build the girls' self-confidence, says the organizers. "Some girls believe they are not as naturally talented at spacial thinking compared to boys, but that's not true," says Locks. The team was eager to combat erroneous, preconceived notions that the girls might have held about ME as a major and a career. "From the outside, mechanical engineering appears to be a major for guys. Some people think to be a successful woman in this major you have to be one of the guys," notes Hamada. "That's unfortunately one of the mentalities going into it, that to be a leader and have a presence in the field, you have to fit the mold. Yet in engineering, some of the greatest innovations come from people thinking differently. For the girls, embracing their unique perspectives and individuality as women is an empowering experience."

With a university student/high school student ratio of 1:1, the team went to work, and by day 3, the girls were busy in the shop crafting and constructing their lamps out of aluminum. Throughout, the ASME and SWE members offered advice and ideas relating to ME career paths. "We did this to promote more networking, and to encourage discussions about what it was like in college, to be involved in an internship and the challenges they may encounter," says Locks.

High school students showing off the lamps they've made, photo by Brittany Wun

The event was a hit. "The students were really excited about being in the shop and were bragging about their lamps," says Hamada. The team was able to inject other information into the experience, such as lessons on the rapidly developing field of 3D printing, as well as laser cutting and other techniques needed for success in ME. There were immediate benefits, says Locks, as the students took what they had learned and applied them in a robotics and Scientific Olympiad competitions. "I am already hearing from girls who are looking forward to designing and building the [next] robot," she says. "They know CAD, so they can design and machine [parts]. They are excited as they look forward to more competitions where they can use this information and also to when they may be able to apply this in college and then in the real world."

As a result of their project, at least one girl has expressed interest in majoring in ME; the students saw firsthand that "getting their hands dirty in the shop opens a lot of doors for them," notes Hamada. "Now they know that if they have a fun project at home they can DIY it themselves." Adds co-leader Brittany Wun, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering: "we're making a difference in these girls' lives and helping them decide what to do with their futures. I wish I had similar opportunities in high school, but I'm really excited to give them this chance to explore engineering."


Got a Project Idea – Your Student Section Can Apply for a Diversity Action Grant

This project was supported by the ASME Diversity Action Grant (DAG) program that offers ASME student sections the opportunity to conduct mechanical engineering focused events/projects that promote STEM education and the inclusion of under-served communities and women.

Diversity Action Grant Applications may be submitted from the Beginning of the Fall Semester until the Deadline of November 1st.