Last summer, Natasha Stroedecke, age 10, studied environmental engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). She delighted in raising tadpoles into frogs, observing earthworms and analyzing the nocturnal habits of owls.
This summer, Natasha will return to NJIT to take a class she’s even more excited about: aeronautical engineering. In that class she’ll spend five weeks building rockets, designing hot air balloons and taking a simulated trip to the moon.
“I love the summer classes at NJIT,” said Natasha, who lives in Rutherford and will enter fifth grade in the fall. “They are cool, lots of fun and are an educational way to spend the summer. The classes are all girls, and the teachers encourage us to have the confidence to be engineers and scientists when we grow up.”
Natasha is one of 150 girls enrolled in an NJIT summer program known as Femme. The program offers five classes for girls in fourth through eighth grades. This summer, the five classes are environmental, aeronautical, mechanical, chemical and biomedical engineering. Each class has 26 students. A related program, called Femme Academy, is an intensive class for ninth-grade girls who for three weeks live on the NJIT campus. Femme Academy focuses on electrical and computer engineering. In all the classes, the girls do hands-on lab projects, take field trips and listen to invited lecturers.
The five-week-long Femme classes run from July 5-Aug. 3. The girls attend class Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuition, which is subsidized by corporate sponsors, donors and NJIT, is $850.00.
(Editor’s Note: Journalists who’d like to visit Femme should contact Robert Florida at 973-596-5203.)
Femme aims to help girls overcome a persistent gender gap in math, science and engineering. The gap is even greater among minorities. And students of both sexes from affluent backgrounds do better in math and science than those from poor communities. Most of the girls in Femme are from working-class, minority families.
What’s to account for the gender gap? In grade school, girls do as well as boys in math and science. But once they enter middle school, girls fall behind boys. When they enter high school, most girls don’t take advanced math and science classes. And later, when as young women they enter college, they lack the pre-requisite courses needed to enroll in science, math or engineering majors. As a result, nearly 90 percent of engineers in America are men, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Femme is helping to change that percentage. Femme started in 1981 and according to statistics compiled by the NJIT Center for Pre-college Programs, nearly 70 percent of Femme alumni study technology, science or engineering in college. Femme thus shows that the gender gap is not due to innate differences between the sexes.
“Boys are not biologically superior to girls in math and science,” said Rosa Cano, associate director of the NJIT Center for Pre-College Programs, which runs Femme. “Unfortunately, even after the women’s movement, equal opportunity and educational laws, pernicious stereotypes still persist.”
Many parents and teachers believe that boys are better at math and science than girls and, either consciously or subconsciously, they encourage boys to succeed in these subjects, Cano said. Boys thus develop more confidence than girls, whose confidence in math and science starts to wane in the fifth grade. Boys become more assertive in class, raising their hands more and dominating math and science discussions. Once this pattern is established, some girls fall into stereotypical gender roles and let the boys dominate. Popular culture also tends to portray scientists as nerdy and brainy men who spend all their time in drab labs – images that linger in a young girl’s mind, Cano said.
Femme classes immerse girls in scientific and technological concepts so that when they reach high school they have acquired the habit of scientific inquiry. Most of Femme teachers are women, and women scientists and engineers often visit the classrooms. The classes boost the girls’ self-confidence and encourage them to choose careers in scientific and technological fields.
Natasha, the 10-year-old Femme student, says Femme has inspired her. When she gets older, she hopes to work as an aeronautical engineer. Natasha is also lucky to have a nearby role model. Her mother, Eva Stroedecke, is an NJIT graduate and a chemical engineer who has worked for Colgate-Palmolive and Schering-Plough. She knows, first hand, the role that gender plays in the world of science and engineering.
“It’s gotten better today, but when I studied engineering in the 1980s, I was often the only woman in my science classes,” Stroedecke said. “In industry there are few women in engineering, especially in research & development or management. Even today many parents don’t encourage girls to be scientists and engineers. I once visited Natasha’s elementary school to talk to students about engineering. Many of the students’ parents were startled when they found out that I -- a woman -- am an engineer. Femme combats that stereotype and gives girls the confidence to compete with the boys.”