"Close your eyes and picture an engineer," said mechanical engineer Kristen Railey '13 to the group of 50 high-school girls gathered in Lincoln Laboratory's cafeteria on Dec. 13, 2014, for an engineering workshop. "Okay, open your eyes and raise your hand if you imagined Mark Zuckerberg, a car mechanic, or characters from 'The Big Bang Theory.'" It was clear these references had struck a chord with the girls, as dozens of hands immediately flew up. "Now," she directed, "raise your hand if you imagined someone like me." Fewer than five hands shot up in the air.
Railey was not at all surprised by this response; at age 16, she too had thought that engineers were nerdy guys who made buildings, hid behind computers, or fixed cars. "I want girls to realize that engineers look like me and them," says Railey, who organized and led the full-day workshop designed to introduce girls to engineering by having them make their own wearables — apparel and accessories that incorporate computer and electronic technologies. The girls not only left the workshop with 3-D-printed bracelets but also with basic skills in computer-aided design (CAD), computer programming, and circuitry.
"My goals for the workshop were to spark girls' interest in engineering through the trendy topic of wearables and to equip them with hands-on engineering skills before college," explains Railey. As a former MIT mechanical engineering undergraduate with no pre-college exposure to engineering, Railey knows all too well how a lack of preparedness and low confidence can deter girls from the field. On her first day of 2.007, a design and manufacturing course for sophomore mechanical-engineering students, she was handed a box containing sheet metal, wheels, two motors, and a circuit board. By the end of the semester, it was expected that these materials would be transformed into a moving robot that would compete in the annual robotics competition culminating the course. Railey failed and, at the time, swore off engineering forever.
Inspiring young minds
"Workshops and other events in which girls can see how engineering is applied and realize that they too can become successful and confident engineers is critical to expanding female interest and participation in the field," says Railey. According to Verizon's "Inspire Her Mind" campaign that encourages girls' participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), 76 percent of girls become interested in engineering when they are shown what engineers do. Age also seems to play a role in how likely it is that girls are interested in STEM; 66 percent of fourth-grade girls reported they like science and math, but only 18 percent of engineering majors are female. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found only one in seven engineers is female.
Noting these statistics, Railey decided the target audience for her workshop would be girls in grades 9 through 12. "Girls in this age group are applying to college, picking their freshman classes, declaring majors, and thinking about possible careers," she explains. It was during high school that Railey herself decided to pursue engineering: "I was on a tour of MIT Media Lab and saw all the projects the students were working on. I became intrigued."
Today, Railey builds and programs military robots at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the Advanced Capabilities and Systems Group. From giving up on engineering to making a career out of it, Railey has come a long way. Following her failure in 2.007, Railey received much encouragement from her parents, both of whom are computer scientists, and looked toward MIT upperclasswomen for support. She joined the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers and enrolled in introductory computer programming and advanced machine shop courses to get up to speed. While grateful for finally having found the right career, Railey hopes that the engineering conversation with girls can be started earlier than it began for her.
"To start the engineering conversation with the workshop participants, I explained that engineering can be applied to solve problems in whatever field they are passionate about, whether it is fashion, transportation, healthcare, or national defense, which is my passion," says Railey. Presenting some of the real-world applications of wearable technology were two guest speakers: Katy Olesnavage, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT who described the next-generation prosthetic foot she is prototyping for amputees in the developing world; and Michael Gibson, embr labs co-founder and PhD candidate in materials science and engineering at MIT, who presented the science behind Wristify, a bracelet that sends waves of heating or cooling to the wearer's wrist to provide thermal comfort. "I learned a lot about different areas of engineering that I didn't even know existed," said one of the girls.
The girls received tours of the Technology Office Innovation Laboratory (TOIL) and attended a session on SolidWorks CAD software, licenses for which were donated by SolidWorks Corporation. In TOIL, David Scott, TOIL manager, presented the applications of 3-D printers and various machine-shop tools, including a laser cutter, drill press, and mill. Several 3-D printers were running so the girls could see the 3D-printing process as it was occurring. "None of the girls had previously been exposed to 3-D printing," says Scott. Laboratory projects incorporating 3-D-printed and machined parts were on exhibit to demonstrate the possibilities of additive and subtractive manufacturing, respectively. "By the end of the tour, the girls were asking how to get involved in such work," he continues.
To prepare the girls for the CAD session, Olesnavage walked them through the mechanical-design process by detailing her experience developing prosthetics. After learning how to use SolidWorks, the girls worked in pairs on laptops to create 3-D models of bracelets. "I really liked SolidWorks," said one participant. "We had fun designing the bracelets," she continued. While helping the girls with the software, a team of Lincoln Laboratory volunteers discussed how they got started in engineering and what kind of work they are involved in as mechanical engineers.
During the second half of the day, Gavin Lund, an electrical engineer in the laboratory's Optical Communications Technology Group, introduced the girls to computer programming and circuits. As part of an interactive demonstration, the girls created simple instructions to program a robot —i n this case, Railey — to build a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The exercise prepared the girls to program light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for their final workshop activity: build a shoe-wearable electronic circuit with a FLORA (a wearable electronics platform), LEDs, and a pressure sensor. For this activity, the group used the Firewalker LED Sneakers technology developed by Adafruit Industries, an MIT alumna-founded company that designs open-source electronics kits for do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. Because of the complexity of the Firewalker code used to program the LEDs, Leslie Watkins of the laboratory's Advanced Capabilities and Systems Group wrote a library of functions that covered the code. For the code to work, the girls had to put these functions in the correct order and select the appropriate weight threshold for the pressure sensor. On hand to help them with their programming and circuitry was a team of computer scientists and engineers.
"Many of the girls were really amazed that their codes worked. Their faces lit up as they walked and saw their shoes flashing red," says Railey. In reflecting on this part of the workshop, one participant said, "It was satisfying when the shoe lit up. I now want to get into more programming." In the end, most pairs of girls had built functioning wearable circuits. According to Railey, the few girls who did not get their code to run learned the important lesson that engineering is not always successful on the first try and requires problem solving.
Concluding the workshop was a series of raffles for laser-cut purses, sweatshirts, 3D-printed jewelry, and light-up shoe kits. Each participant received a gift bag containing a 3-D-printed bracelet, a list of local workshops and online engineering resources for DIY electronics, and goodies donated by SolidWorks Corporation and Lincoln Laboratory.
Railey intends to offer the one-day workshop again next year but is considering making a few adjustments based on lessons learned during the pilot workshop. Changing the venue from Lincoln Laboratory to MIT campus could draw participants from the city of Boston (this year's participants came from local-area high schools). To address the varying programming skill levels of participants, the curriculum could include beginner and intermediate/advanced versions of the programming challenge. An activity in which girls take apart different hardware could make the mechanical design session more hands on.
In the meantime, Railey is keeping in contact with this year's workshop participants through social media and a blog on her website, Girls Who Build. "The conversation does not end here with the workshop. I want to create a community that connects girls to local engineering workshops and summer camps, female role models, and STEM educators," states Railey. In fact, the workshop is only one of Railey's many efforts to engage girls in STEM. On her website, Railey publishes teaching materials for educators to host their own wearables workshops and for coaches of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League robotics teams, one of which is an all-girls middle-school team that Railey coaches. A lifelong Girl Scout, Railey is proposing new Girl Scout merit badges in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science — subjects that are currently only offered to Boy Scouts. "It is my hope that by exposing girls to STEM early on and engaging them over the years, the number of women engineers and scientists will rise," says Railey.
Early registration for the 2015 workshop can be found on the Girls Who Build website.