Research News

Grant will support study of engineering club for girls

girls working together on a STEM project.


Published March 30, 2017

portrait of Mary McVee in her lab.
“Kids are taught how to not fail, but failing is actually really important in engineering. You can learn through failure.”
Mary McVee, professor of literacy education and director
Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction

Occupational projections show a clear trend: Good jobs in STEM professions — those in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields — will rise significantly in the next five to 10 years. Yet, according to a congressional committee, only 14 percent of existing engineering jobs are filled by women.

Now, a grant from UB’s Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender will help UB researchers examine girls’ opportunities to learn as part of an engineering club.

Researchers from UB’s Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction (CLaRI) will take a closer look at gender in an after-school engineering club that began in 2014 with third-grade students at Heritage Heights Elementary in the Sweet Home School District.

The engineering club is still going strong, says Mary McVee, professor of literacy education and director of CLaRI.

“I heard from teachers that the first question the now fifth-grade students asked when they returned from summer break was, ‘When does engineering club start again?’” says McVee. “We’ve had very positive feedback.”

McVee and her co-investigators on the grant — Lynn Shanahan, associate professor of literacy, and Ken English, deputy director of the Community of Excellence in Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotics Technologies (SMART) — will evaluate why the Heritage Heights engineering club works so well.

They will look at data that has been collected since the club began, as well as new data to examine how girls approach engineering. The UB researchers then will try to determine what lessons other schools can learn from the Heritage Heights club’s success.

The Heritage Heights engineering club, part of a project known as DeVELOP STEM ETC (Designing Vital Engineering and Literacy Oriented Practices in STEM for Elementary Teachers and Children), focuses on increasing interest in engineering in under-represented populations, specifically girls and English language learners.

The project also investigates the intersection of the engineering design process and disciplinary literacies. Disciplinary literacies look at how each discipline, such as engineering, has its own way of communicating, both verbally and non-verbally.

The engineering club provides McVee and her colleagues with the opportunity to study the behavior and engagement of elementary students and compare it to existing research on how girls view STEM subjects. Girls’ attitudes and interests in math and science, for example, tend to remain similar to boys during elementary school, according to McVee. But girls’ interest in STEM-related subjects starts to wane during middle school.

Understanding opportunities to learn within an engineering club may help provide insights into getting girls engaged in the engineering process, building interest in STEM subjects and encouraging them to enter STEM fields.

Among other things, children in the Heritage Heights engineering club are taught that failure is not necessarily a bad thing.

“In school, we are taught that there is only right and wrong, and we become less willing to take risks,” says McVee. “Kids are taught how to not fail, but failing is actually really important in engineering. You can learn through failure.”

The engineering club began engaging students in the third grade, an age when young learners were still willing and comfortable to make mistakes, McVee says. The students were open to learning new ways of thinking and communicating.

The club gives students the chance to be problem-solvers and think and talk like engineers. The “disciplinary literacy” aspect — where students learn a way of communicating distinct to their area of training — is particularly important, according to McVee.

Even students who are still developing English language skills have been able to fully participate, she says. The club encourages communication through language, but also through the non-verbal means practiced by engineers, such as sketching or developing working models. Their non-verbal skills show how they want to solve a problem.

“Focusing on language-in-use — for example, reading, writing and talking like an engineer — is a critical goal for disciplinary literacy. But an additional goal must be to develop students into insiders so they feel a sense of agency,” says Shanahan. “Feeling like an insider with discipline-specific practices — like engineering — is crucial for underrepresented minorities and girls so that they have the opportunity to create engineering identities and habits of mind.”

Another critical element of the engineering club is the chance to engage in teamwork and communication, referred to as “soft skills.”

“Many people believe that engineering is only about math or science, creating technology for technology’s sake. In practice, much of engineering is about collaborative problem-solving,” English says. “Engineers work with diverse groups to identify problems, collaborate in teams to develop solutions, and need to effectively communicate these solutions to the people who are going to produce and use the designs.”