I was excited, earlier this year, to be the inaugural recipient of the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. As a tenure track faculty member at the University of Illinois, I’m often asked whether my career suffers by performing outreach. It is true that I need to be diligent with time management. Also, working in a supportive environment has been essential. To take one example: many of my faculty colleagues eagerly volunteered for a new programme called Girls Learning Electrical Engineering (GLEE), set up to encourage girls’ engagement with electrical engineering.
The American Society for Engineering Education reports  that the proportion of female US engineering graduates is on the slide.In 2009, 17.8 per cent of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women versus 20.8 per cent in 2000. Among all engineering fields, electrical engineering (EE) has one of the largest gender gaps. In 2009, only 11.5 per cent of EE degrees nationwide were awarded to women. In addition to low recruitment, a major contributing factor to the widening gender gap is low retention.
To spark interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), we have created GLEE (Girls Learning Electrical Engineering), a residential, week-long summer camp at the University of Illinois that engages 15-17 year old girls in EE activities and learning. These ages are critical to recruitment as studies point to a dearth of pre-college engineering exposure, negative stereotypes about engineers’ work, and lack of confidence in their potential to pursue engineering as key reasons why more female students do not pursue engineering careers. Other studies focus on the lack of role models as a deterrent. GLEE connects campers with Illinois faculty mentors and, equally as important, to Illinois female students.
Curriculum development has been supported by the Motorola Foundation through an Innovation Generation grant. Motorola employee volunteers also help at the camp and talk about their lives as engineers. The camp was first offered in July 2010 and will be held annually as part of the very successful GAMES camp (Girls’ Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science) at Illinois.
The technical programme for GLEE includes classroom instruction, demos, hands-on activities, tours of research facilities, and a team project. The curriculum showcases practical applications of EE subfields by investigating a real world technology: the cell phone. The main project is to build an FM phone (combined FM transmitter and receiver) using what they’ve learned in class. Each team lays out their circuits on a protoboard and performs experiments on their prototypes. Finally, campers solder their own FM phone that they get to take home.
The GAMES camp has been successful as a retention programme for the women engineering students who have acted as counsellors and instructors.1 By allowing women college students to be involved in explaining and representing their engineering fields to younger girls, their interest in their own engineering studies increases as well as their commitment to the field and their likelihood of success.2 For GLEE, female undergraduates helped develop the curriculum and run the labs, thereby reinforcing understanding of fundamental concepts and building confidence for degree completion.
I believe there must be widespread buy-in from both women and men to remove visible and invisible gender barriers. And although we focus on women, a fortunate byproduct of GAMES is that it supports the general movement for increased diversity in STEM: an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse population of over 200 girls ranging in age from 11 to 17 participates in GAMES each year.
At Illinois we are enthusiastic about public engagement, enabling our faculty to be leaders in research, education, and service.
1 A Rickman, M Alcantara and S Larson (2008), Increased retention seen in female engineering undergraduates acting as counsellors and instructors in a middle school engineering camp, 4th Annual National Symposium on Student Retention, Little Rock, Arkansas