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RIT working to fix the gender gap in STEM fields

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On the first National Assessment of Technology and Engineering skills, 8th grade girls scored higher on average than 8th grade boys.

The NAEP test, also called the National Report Card, showed that girls outperformed boys in both technology and engineering.

Still, the discrepancy between male and female students in STEM is huge. RIT is working to fix that gap.

A group of forty female students just took third place in a national race car building competition and first place in project management, but they’re also record breakers in a different sense.

“This is our first formula SAE car, powered completely by an electric motor and high powered lithium ion batteries,” said RIT engineering student Maura Chmielowiec.

The car, along with the forty people who built it, have one thing in common – they’re all women.

“The name is Phoebe,” Chmielowiec said. “For the competition you have to choose a name for the car, so this is Phoebe.”

Phoebe and the women who built her are part of a growing female presence in a historically male dominated field. At RIT, the male-female ratio in engineering is approaching three to one. It’s an improvement from prior years, and better than the national average.

“We’re seeing a steady improvement in our numbers,” Kathy Ehrlich said. “Nationally, the average is about 19 percent.”

Ehrlich, the director of the women’s engineering program says the gap is due to lack of encouragement and female role models, as well as largely accepted, but false perceptions.

“Boys and girls believe that boys are better at math and science by the age of seven,” said Ehrlich.

Maura recognizes that the journey isn’t as easy for other women, and aside from building cars, she tries to build a strong female STEM community.

“You can actually see their confidence blossom,” Chmielowiec said. “We’ve had freshmen go from being shy to building parts late night in the shop to get them on the car for race day”

Maura feels the best teams are made up of people from all backgrounds and genders, but until the field catches up with the talent, having a place for women to feel comfortable is integral to their success.

“The reason we’re all female is so that we can get girls’ confidence levels up,” said Chmielowiec. “So that when we go out into the field, they’re more likely to take charge in a group, be a leader, to go out and show their worth at a company.”

Maura is moving to Detroit to become an engineer for GM, but she plans to still mentor her younger peers at RIT to help change those ratios.

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