While some teenagers fritter away their summers bathing in the sunlight, frolicking in the pool or repairing to the local mall, a group 20 teenage girls are ensconced in labs at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), devoting their summer to designing circuit boards, building robots and analyzing micro-bugs.
The girls, future computer and electrical engineers, are enrolled in the first-ever FEMME Academy, a four-week summer class at NJIT, a long-time leader in educating pre-college students, especially minorities and girls, both of whom are drastically underrepresented in engineering. Nearly 90 percent of engineers are men, and NJIT, which ranks nationally for its diversity, intends the academy to combat that gender gap. The academy enrolls girls who in the fall will enter tenth and eleventh grades. And, to give them a true feel for college life, the girls will stay in NJIT’s residential halls during the last two weeks of the academy.
“Having the girls stay in the residential halls will enable them to support each other academically and socially,” said Rosa Cano, associate director of The Center for Pre-College Programs at NJIT. “Since most engineers are men, girls can feel isolated, and living in the halls will give them just what they need to succeed in engineering: the chance to develop lasting, life-long bonds.”
(Editor’s Note: From July 26-Aug. 4, reporters and photographers are invited to visit the girls in both their classes and in their dorms.)
Elementary school girls perform as well as boys in math and science, yet for sundry reasons, fall behind boys during middle and high school. FEMME challenges the premise that boys are better than girls in math and science and engineering. All of the FEMME teachers, as well as the tutors and the resident assistants in the dorms, are women. Most engineers are also not minorities, while many of the students in FEMME Academy are minority girls who live in urban areas.
According to a 2004 National Science Foundation report entitled, “Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering,” only 20 percent of 2001 graduating engineers is women.
Jennifer Ebert, who is teaching the FEMME Academy, is an exemplary role model for the girls. Ebert, 29, is an industrial engineer, a physicist, and an NJIT graduate who worked formerly as a software engineer for Lucent Technologies. For the last three years, Ebert has taught physics at Linden High School, Linden.
“FEMME Academy is awesome,” Ebert said. “By separating them from the boys, it takes away the hormones and helps them to focus. They don’t have to worry about make-up and clothes and who is dating who.”
FEMME Academy is focused on computer and electrical engineering, said Ebert, since it’s the field that attracts the fewest women. “There’s a perception that computer engineers are quintessentially geeky men, sitting all day in windowless offices speaking arcane languages that no one understands,” said Ebert. “But the girls in my class are awesome and itching to design and build and learn about engineering.”
Inner-city girls oftentimes lose interest in math, science and engineering since it is perceived to be uncool, said Ebert. “It’s a serious cultural problem. Even I was a nerdy kid, but I tried to mask it with make-up. It was only in high school that I took an interest in engineering. In the end, that’s what we’re trying to do with FEMME Academy: to empower girls to feel confident with math, science and engineering, so that if they wish, they could one day work as engineers.”
Editor’s Note: The girls attending FEMME Academy live in these towns: East Orange, Elizabeth, Fort Lee, Hillside, Irvington, Maplewood, Newark, North Plainfield, Orange, Schnecksville, Pa., South Orange, Union, Union City, and West Orange.