Nerd Girls encourages women in STEM

Karen Panetta's "Nerd Girls" group works on various projects such as designing solar power systems for light houses on Thatcher Island, off the coast of Rockport. This particular project involves students from all engineering disciplines -- chemical, mechanical, and electrical. In addition, they are looking at the potential use of wind and tide for power, and working on water filtration systems. Melody Ko/Tufts University

Historically, women have been less involved in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) than men. Though it may be a problem deeply rooted in society, there has been a recent push to change this imbalance and encourage women to enter and participate in previously male-dominated fields. Dr. Karen Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts, is one of those involved in this movement.

In 2000, Panetta created a program at Tufts called Nerd Girls, which aims to empower and encourage women and girls from all around the world to study these STEM subjects. Since then, Nerd Girls has spread globally.

Panetta came to Tufts in 1994 as the first woman in the Electrical Engineering Department. She noticed that there were many female students who were engineers and also marathon runners, musicians, writers or dancers.

“I thought it would be really cool if younger girls could see that these girls are well-rounded and great engineers as well,” Panetta said. “I noticed that a lot of girls would drop out of engineering because they didn’t think they were good enough.”

She began the program to create a group of engineers who could act as role models for younger girls and boost their interest in STEM subjects as well as their overall confidence. Nerd Girls’ first project was the creation of a solar car, which was a novelty since Tufts had no renewable energy projects at that time. Since then, Nerd Girls, through Panetta’s tutelage, has done many community-based projects.

“The real part [of Nerd Girls] is building research skills for girls and young women,” Panetta said. “And it doesn’t matter if they don’t become engineers — what matters is showing them that no matter what they do, the engineering and science background helps them use their imagination, and brings people and technology together to help humanity.”

Alice Lee, a senior majoring in computer engineering, said that she is the only female computer engineer in her graduating class. She is one of four female students in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science departments in the Class of 2015.

Lee’s situation is not rare. According to a Sept. 30 article in Bizwomen, less than 18.2 percent of women go into engineering fields, 39 percent of women in engineering quit and of that group, 51 percent begin working in a totally unrelated field. Of the engineering fields, electrical, computer and mechanical engineering tend to attract the least amount of women.

According to Saba Kohli Dave, a sophomore involved in activities with the Women’s Center, history can help to shed light on why there are so few women in STEM fields.

“I believe the reason there are fewer women in these fields is largely historical,” she said. “Women are typically thought of as the homemaker, and men are supposed to go out there and earn the bread. When science fields began to come into prominence in the 1800s, it was primarily men who dominated those fields, because men had more resources, men had more education. And the legacy of that is still pretty prominent in today’s society.”

Because of the historical roots and precedence of STEM areas being predominantly male, there seems to be a social structure in today’s time that has become difficult to break out of.

“STEM subjects are super hyper-masculinized,” Dave said. “And it’s uncomfortable for these hugely masculine fields to ‘let in’ women. Why would they want to have women in fields that typically cater to men? It’s uncomfortable. It makes trouble.”

According to Dave, only now are these boundaries breaking.

Lee spoke about her involvement in Nerd Girls. Her favorite event was one she attended last fall, called “Math Moves You.” For this, Lee went to a local community college with Girls Scouts in grades five through eight to do science activities. They built catapults and had competitions to see whose could throw marshmallows the furthest.

Lee said she enjoyed working with these girls because she helped set an example.

“[It showed] that it’s possible to get into the science fields and to make it fun for them,” she said.

Lee also talked about a project she is currently working on through Nerd Girls and as part of her senior design project. She is designing portable storage devices in the form of ID cards for women in United Nations refugee camps all across the world, particularly in Syria and Lebanon. These refugee camps often do not have efficient databases (or more often, none at all), making it difficult to keep track of patients’ information. The women in these camps are often raped and abused, and have experienced many traumas in their past and present.

These devices would store the women’s medical history and help doctors see what kind of treatments women have received and what they might need in the future. A lot of the doctors do not speak the local languages, so women in these camps often run the risk of being diagnosed with the wrong ailment or being prescribed the wrong medicine. These devices would prevent that.

In addition, the U.N. doctors would be able to privately access the information on the cards without the patients having to relive the trauma of past abuses.

Because of programs such as Nerd Girls, women’s involvement in STEM fields has been increasing over the years. However, it is still very difficult for women to feel like they fit in, and may feel ostracized by the unbalanced gender ratio in these fields.

“The structure [of the STEM subjects] is built to favor men over women,” Dave said. “Women are like outsiders. Women are not on the same playing field as men, and have the pressure of having to prove themselves. If you don’t prove yourself, or go that one step higher, it’s going to be more stressful because women have to prove themselves in those fields. It’s so hard trying to keep having to validate yourself to something that you shouldn’t have to.”