Going into a STEM field can be daunting, especially if you’re a girl. It can be even scarier considering only 28 percent of the STEM population is female. Over the past several years, however, people have been taking the initiative to minimize this gender gap disparity.
Story by Bonny Chu
Illustration by Carlos Villapadua
To generate more female interest in the STEM field, the Women in Engineering Program (WEP) at the University of Texas at Austin hosted its 17th annual Girl Day on Saturday, Feb. 24. By welcoming young female students to campus to engage in hands-on science activities and demonstrations, female enrollment in some UT STEM majors has slowly increased over the past few years.
“I think Girl Day is such a huge deal,” says mechanical engineering sophomore Sara de la Vega, who helped with setup, informational emergencies and other volunteers as one of the event’s building coordinators. “I think it's a real success. On Girl Day, there's so many more girls than boys, and you can feel the excitement from all them. These girls look like me or they are me. And we’re all doing the same thing. We’re all excited about this together. It’s a good energy.”
As one of the few female mechanical engineering students, de la Vega says she feels the gender gap has personally impacted her experiences at UT. “In my classes, mechanical engineering has a 20 something percent of girls,” de la Vega says. “So when I walk into a class, I feel like people are, ‘Oh, that's another a girl.’ There's almost never more than 10 girls in any classroom, which is really uncomfortable honestly. And I get the pressure to perform better because of that.”
At the event, 1,300 companies, organizations and volunteers registered to participate, which attracted thousands of elementary and middle school students from the Austin area. This is a notable jump from the 92 participants at the first UT Girl Day in 2001. To fill the day with activities, there was a diverse range of 150 workshops such as catapult constructions, potato circuits and virtual reality games.
As a first-time attendee, nine-year-old Catherine Collier, says she not only learned a lot that day, but enjoyed it too.“Each workshop was better after the next,” Collier says. “Basically all the ones I did were my favorite, like the bridge construction and the sun-bead bracelet making. It was a lot of fun and today was just an awesome day.”
Although Catherine says the event met her expectations, she still does not know what her dream job would be. “I still don’t know what I want to be,” Catherine says. “But I love science and building things. That’s what my dad does. He builds a lot of stuff with technology and I like to help him with that.”
Freda Collier, Catherine’s stay-at-home mom, says the event was a huge success for her daughter. “It was really welcoming and really fun. And they always made space because they knew it was crowded. It was really nice that they made sure to include everyone,” Freda says.
However, Freda says that she wishes the event was longer because there were so many activities.“It would be nice to start from 9 a.m. and do this in waves so we can hit everything without rushing. But I would definitely bring my daughter back here again next year.”