Rachel Pytel decided to become an engineer in seventh grade because of an enrichment program called "Expanding Your Horizons."
More than a decade later, the third-year materials engineering graduate student is hoping to provide the same inspiration for girls across the country as an instructor in the Women's Initiative, a growing MIT group dedicated to exposing young women to careers in engineering.
For Pytel, who grew up in upstate New York with two musician parents, engineering was not an obvious choice. She was selected for the program because of her excellence in school. Over the course of the one-day seminar, Pytel was able to learn about engineering and conduct experiments, including one in which the 12-year-old bounced balls frozen with liquid nitrogen.
"I thought it was the coolest thing," said Pytel. "It made me want to be a scientist."
In January, Pytel joined Anna Michel, an ocean engineering Ph.D. candidate, in South Carolina, and the two women went to dozens of high schools and middle schools across the state, teaching hour-long engineering courses to 12 to 60 girls at a time, designed to spark their interest in engineering.
Their trip was part of the 7-year-old campus group's annual program that sends women engineers to schools across the country during the month of January. First sponsored by Microsoft, the program was initially only open to members of Eta Kappa Nu, the electrical and computer engineering honor society, but in 2002, the group opened up to other departments. The group is now sponsored by a variety of organizations, including Texas Instruments.
"We are currently looking for funding," said Alexandra Chau, graduate student in mechanical engineering and co-director of the Women's Initiative who feels that the group really does make a difference.
"I felt really lucky because my parents were very encouraging for me to be scientific," said Chau. "It is amazing how the girls, who did not always have those kinds of backgrounds, really respond to us."
Both Michel and Pytel were also surprised by the stereotypes many girls held about engineering. "One student thought it was a dirty job that only men should do," said Michel with a laugh.
In fact, many of the girls did believe that engineering was a job that involved a lot of heavy labor and getting dirty. Both Pytel and Michel worked to combat that image by introducing the girls to the wide variety of engineering jobs available through photos, discussion and hands-on demonstrations.
Pytel and Michel told the girls about the exciting things their engineering friends are doing: designing toys for Mattel, experiencing weightlessness at NASA and helping to save the environment. "We showed them women who are doing really amazing, interesting things," said Pytel.
Since most of the girls were already strong in math and science to begin with, they just needed a nudge in the right direction, said Pytel. So many other professions are well represented in the media, but engineers "only have Dilbert," Pytel said. Without parents or family members who are in engineering, these girls might not be exposed to the profession, said Pytel. "They just don't know about it."
In addition to the more practical information, the girls were also invited to participate in a mini-experiment, breaking into groups to build clay boats. "They were really receptive," said Pytel. "They really seemed to enjoy it."
Additionally, Pytel and Michel provided the girls with a road map of courses they should take if they choose to pursue an engineering career. "We gave them stuff to think about," said Pytel. "And we broke down some of the stereotypes."