Secondary school girls from Dublin and Co. Wexford have just spent two weeks designing robots, making solar-powered cookers, and programming LED lights as they took part in a programme at Trinity College Dublin designed to open their eyes to the possibility of an exciting career in engineering.
The programme’s primary purpose is to increase the number of girls studying engineering at university by providing high-quality, enjoyable, hands-on experience of the reality of engineering. Secondary school girls between transition year and fifth year arrive for two weeks in ‘Year One’ of the programme and then return for another two weeks for ‘Year Two’ when they are between their fifth and sixth year. This year’s programme represented the seventh year it has been in operation at Trinity.
The programme is led by Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering in the School of Engineering at Trinity, Kevin Kelly, who was motivated to get involved after realising how large the gender imbalance was in favour of male students in his classes.
He said: “I am really seeking to open minds here and create awareness of what it is that engineers do. As a profession we do a relatively poor job of this, and girls in particular tend not to consider it as a viable career path. I felt there was a real need for some bottom-up action to address the problem to complement some of the top-down work on raising awareness and interest for women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics].”
There are three core philosophies at the heart of the programme: It is provided free of charge, involves working closely with secondary schools to encourage students, and actively targets those with no more than a passing interest in engineering at such early stages of their education. So far, it has been a tremendous success.
Professor Kelly added: “Around 70% of girls going through the programme have gone onto engineering programmes at third level, which I think suggests we are doing something right. The tight coupling we have with particular schools also helps – as we’ve had other students in these schools who haven't taken the course come to Trinity.”
Professor Kelly is assisted in running the camp by undergraduate students from the School of Engineering. This year saw a nice ‘closing of the loop’ as two ‘graduates’ of the summer programme acted as helpers on this year’s camp.
Katie Petherbridge, who has just finished her first year in the Engineering with Management degree, said: “I really enjoyed my time on the programme when I was in school. At the time, being an engineer wasn’t on my radar – I was thinking of following a family tradition in nursing – but after the experience I knew this was the career for me. I loved the opportunity to be creative and to help in designing things that make a real difference to people’s lives.”
She added: “I’m so glad I had that chance and now I’m loving my course. The small class size in the engineering with management programme means I got to know everyone really fast and I love the project work. Working with some of the older guys here has been great too – as I’m learning about what I’ll be studying in later years. I’m really looking forward to making guitars next year and to the big design project with Stanford in 4th year. It’ll be so cool to get to go to California as part of my course – not many of my friends can say that!”
Iseult O’Donnell, who has just finished her second year in Engineering, had little doubt about the value of the programme to her. She added: “I was lucky that I had really good science teachers in school, so I had some idea about science and technology. I was thinking about science, but when I did the programme I loved the way that we didn’t just study the science stuff, but actually got to use it to create solutions to real-world problems. I think it is really great that girls who mightn’t normally get the exposure to something like engineering when they’re in school can get the sort of experiences they get in summer camp this.”
This year’s participants seem to be enjoying their time too. Miriam O’Callaghan from Santa Sabina, Dominican College, Dublin, said: “I wasn’t sure what we’d be doing. I thought engineering was only about structures and things before I came in, but it is so much more than that. It has been a lot of fun.”
Hannah O’Shaughnessy, from Gorey Community School, Co. Wexford, was also pleasantly surprised. She said: “I didn’t really know what engineers did before the camp, but now I feel I have a much better idea and it is definitely something I’d consider when I go to college.”
Aoife O’Shea, from Our Lady’s School, Terenure, added: “I had some idea about what engineers do from my brother, who is studying engineering, but I had no idea it was so broad and that you can do so many different things and still be called an engineer. I think my favourite activity was the ‘egg-drop’ where we had to design and build a device to get a raw egg safely to ground when thrown from the top of the building. That was lots of fun!”