Argonne helps introduce girls to engineering careers

By Alex MitchellJune 1, 2014

This story was originally published in volume 8, issue 1 of Argonne Now, the laboratory's semiannual science magazine.

As Mia Cochrane walks among the tall jack pines on the campus of Michigan Tech University, she represents a success story.

First and foremost, of course, it's a story of personal success. Cochrane, an 18-year-old freshman, is attending a major technological institution, where she is pursuing her dream of becoming an environmental engineer.

It is also a story of success in science education and outreach—one that began with a modest roadside sign and continues to be written.

Cochrane's first brush with big science came in 2006, when she was 11 years old and Argonne National Laboratory was holding an open house to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

“I saw a sign (advertising the open house) by Lemont Road on my way to work one day,” said Mia’s father, Bill. “I knew Mia was interested in her science class, and I thought she might like it.”

A few days later, Mia and her father attended the open house, where she was exposed to an array of facilities, demonstrations, and ideas. Among them was a program called “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.”

“There was a vendor’s table for ‘Introduce a Girl,’ and it looked really interesting,” Mia said.

Why a program specifically aimed at exposing girls to engineering?

It's no secret there is a gender gap in the sciences. According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, women are vastly underrepresented among STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degree holders and in STEM jobs. In recent years, the number of girls and women studying STEM has steadily increased, but a significant—and confounding—gap remains.

With this gap in mind, each year Argonne invites roughly 80 eighth-grade girls to the lab, where they meet women engineers, learn about engineering careers, and do hands-on activities and experiments.

At the 2006 open house, Cochrane signed up, and a few months later, she was back at Argonne for Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day 2007.

“It was a very exciting day,” Cochrane said. “When I got there, I met the mentors, we visited a few of the buildings, and we got to see some demonstrations.

“I fell in love with it; it was amazing. I have been interested in engineering ever since.”

According to Bill Cochrane, it was immediately apparent to him and to Mia’s mother, Kim, that the event had made an impression on their daughter.

“When she got back that day, she couldn't stop talking about how much fun it was,” Bill said. “Mia told me about a pie chart they showed that showed the percentage of women and men in engineering, and she said, ‘I want to be in that small percent!’”

For the rest of her eighth-grade year and throughout high school, Mia continued to explore the sciences.

“In eighth grade, we really got into biology,” she said. “We brought in water samples, and we got to look at microscopic organisms. I think it would be really cool to figure out what you can use those organisms for. How you can treat the water. Environmental stuff in general interests me.”

It’s of course gratifying for those involved with Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day to see one of the girls they’ve met and worked with go on to pursue an engineering degree.

“I think it speaks volumes to the importance of engaging kids early in their schooling,” said Tina Henne, who coordinates Argonne’s postdoctoral program and has helped mentor Cochrane. “We bring them in and show them what they can be and how science and engineering impact our world. To make a lasting impression on a kid is huge.

“I’d like to see the mindset shift from thinking of a linear STEM pipeline to one that is more circular. Encourage everyone to mentor back to the generation behind them. Keep engaged with students and professionals at all levels. This is how you build strong communities. Through programs like Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day and Science Careers in Search of Women, we’ve been pretty successful at that.”

During her final weeks of high school, Cochrane visited Argonne for a career shadowing day. As she sat in a nondescript conference room answering questions about her path to engineering school and her plans for the future, her enthusiasm for her studies and for what lie ahead was palpable.

“I’ve always been interested in science,” she said. “I’ve also always had people who are encouraging me to go for it—whatever it is I want to learn or do.”

To learn more about Argonne’s education programs, visit www.dep.anl.gov.