In summer 2017, University of Tulsa electrical engineering students Anna Findley and Jennifer Fox participated in a Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) project that explored why few middle school girls choose to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
Findley, a senior, and Fox, a junior, served as mentors and group leaders for Tech Trek Tulsa 2017, a weeklong STEM camp for eighth-grade girls held annually on TU’s campus. They asked the girls to complete a survey at the beginning of the week to determine their initial interest in STEM disciplines. Activities included using a Circuit Scribe and conductive ink to draw circuits on paper.
“They started coming up with their own ideas and asking for more difficult projects,” Fox said. “Some of the shiest girls in our group were the ones who volunteered to show off their work by the end of the week and lead other groups.”
Findley and Fox were interested in discovering what discourages young girls from pursuing areas such as electrical engineering and physics. While courses like chemistry are common in high school, few engineering options exist. Tech Trek introduces girls to peers who share their same passions and present a comfortable environment to ask questions and build confidence.
“One of the most important things was hands on activities that showed how they can apply engineering,” Fox said. “Showing them female role models and other girls just like them may break the stereotypes of what engineering applications they think are beneficial.”
When Fox arrived at TU, she quickly noticed she was the only girl in her circuit analysis class and one of only four or five girls in the entire Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
“My dream job has always been to work in robotics and animatronics at Disney,” Fox said. “I hadn’t had an electrical engineering class and didn’t know where I could get involved in anything like that.”
Her adviser suggested she enroll in electrical and computer engineering, and today as TURC students, she and Findley are on a mission to increase the popularity of STEM courses among girls.
“It helps to have friends who are also involved in STEM,” said Findley, who hopes to work in the power industry after graduation. “Through some of our research, we learned girls are more concerned with how they can help people with their work.”
At the end of Tech Trek the eighth-grade girls completed another survey on how their feelings toward STEM careers might have changed throughout the week: Seven of the girls said their perception of working in a STEM field had improved. Findley and Fox plan to publish their findings in the Journal of Engineering Education. In addition to their research, the TU students are partnering with the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance to develop a program that offers afternoon STEM activities in local schools. Other ideas they would like to pursue include a Saturday camp where STEM projects involve students and parents.
“We want to reach more people and make STEM more accessible,” Fox said.