6 Ways to Cultivate the Next Generation of Engineers

How to inspire young people, especially girls, to become engineers

The Society of Women in Engineering reports that only 13 percent of engineers are women. Although the number of women engineers in the workforce has grown, women working in STEM fields still face many obstacles. They abandon the journey at every stage — in elementary school, high school, college or the workplace.

How can we do more to encourage young women in the engineering field? We asked the engineers at ASG this question and here’s what they had to say.

1. Work on your car with your daughter.

Encouraging young women to enter the engineering field begins at home. Fostering that curiosity and independence can leave an impact.

“Work on your car with your daughter!” said ASG Engineer Emma Latimer. “Even kids know their own minds, so giving girls space to explore uncritically and experience different hobbies is important.”

Katie Krock, an ASG project manager and mother of two girls, agrees.

“As a mom, I’m discovering that we’re unintentionally setting roles in the household where my girls assume Dad fixes things and Mom cooks,” said Krock. “It’s an unintentional separation of duties. To fight that, there is intentional exposure to projects – designing hanging bookshelves and peg boards or working in the yard. There are math card games and periodic table placemats that drive random dinner conversations. It’s all about allowing them to see the different possibilities.”

It’s especially important to engage in these conversations with girls as well as boys. “We need aspiring engineers to gain insight on the perspective of design through the lens of both genders,” ASG Engineer Suna Sibi said.

ASG engineer Matthew Gum believes it’s important for young potential engineers to be led naturally. “If kids have an opportunity to use engineering skills in a fun way, they will gravitate towards it on their own,” he said. “Giving potential future engineers those opportunities are the best thing to do.”

2. Create opportunities for inspiration.

Getting out of your comfort zone fosters growth and independence and we should be encouraging young people to do the same.

Encouraging young people to travel is one way to do that. Krock still remembers her experience, which led to a moment that sparked her ambition to become an engineer. “When I was 15, I traveled to Sydney, Australia, with a group from my high school. On a tour of the Sydney Opera house, to help us learn about the acoustics, we stood in the last row of seats while someone on stage spoke — and we heard them!  No microphones needed. I was inspired enough to recreate that experience, which led me down an engineering path.”

Matthew Gum got his inspiration working in the garage with his dad. “I always enjoyed spending time with my dad when he took something apart to fix it. That time gave me an appreciation for a lot of mechanical and technical stuff,” Gum said.  “And the things I did for fun started to practice some of my future technical skills. When I was a kid, I made a small house out of just printer paper; as a teenager, I made a 3D map of my house in a video game.”

3. Show how engineering works in the real world.

Young people may be surprised to learn that engineering can be applied to everyday life skills, from rock climbing to solving a puzzle. “The field of engineering is applicable to everyday things,” said ASG engineer Suna Sibi. “Engineering translates to real world applications in a variety of forms, from structural buildings to perfume making.”

Take ropes, for example. “Ropes can be used in a lot of ways,” said Sibi. “Nylon ropes are commonly used for rope climbing. There are even ropes that are made from water-resistant polymers (PP) which make them useful for making fishing nets! Finding a common everyday element they can relate to and putting an engineering twist to it can attract students into exploring the field of engineering.”

“Engineering is all about solving problems, which is a fun thing to do. If kids get an idea for how an engineer thinks and apply that to something they can see and understand, then I think kids would be interested in engineering a lot sooner,” Gum said.

4. Show how engineering is a part of everyday life.

Engineering is everywhere. You can encourage young people to explore engineering by showing them that it is already a part of their daily lives.

“Promote curiosity in various aspects of the world, society and its development on a holistic scale,” said Sibi. “Find an everyday item and make it into an engineering lesson in layman’s terms.”

“As an engineer,” said Gum, “I explain to other people what I’m seeing. Sometimes the process of learning how to use something is very hands-on or I explain the best method of completing a project to other people.”

Sometimes just saying the word “engineering” can be intimidating. Krock, a degreed engineer, doesn’t necessarily call her work engineering, even though she works in the field of engineering every day. “I tell my daughter that my job as a senior project scheduler is about helping the team,” she said. “I use examples from her school to show her how it helps to have someone who can bring it all together and drive to an end goal.”

5. Expose future engineers to hands on experience.

Inviting and encouraging questions can open the door to engineering for young people. So can real life experiences that relate to engineering.

“There are certain activities that are fantastic for starting to develop engineering skills,” said Krock. “We take our girls rock climbing. While rock climbing, you are constantly trying to solve a problem. This is a great activity for confidence building and problem solving.”

Gum suggests exposing young people to different kinds of tools. “I get to learn about and use lots of different tools,” said Gum. “This sometimes involves using machines for testing or manufacturing and using physical hand tools. I use those tools to fix things or make them more efficient. That’s the most exciting part about my job.”

6. Create and foster a supportive environment.

If young people feel supported, they’ll feel more willing to take risks. Support often comes from family, friends, and peers.

“My parents have always supported me as an engineer,” said Latimer. “I wouldn’t have completed my degree or gotten my job without them.”

“In high school, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I would go to college for,” said Gum. “For a little bit, I wanted to do architecture, but I ultimately went with engineering. When I look back, that’s just a logical outcome of the things I was exposed to and then drawn to.”