Why girls lose interest in STEM — and how to get them back

What Suz Somersall learned about girls and engineering classes could change how we teach STEM topics

Published December 7, 2017 6:58PM (EST)

Suz Somersall and the KiraKira team
Suz Somersall and the KiraKira team

Suz Somersall has always been a maker and a self-described nerd who defied what others thought a girl was capable of. As a kid, she would repurpose the tops of her dollhouses into starship control panels. So it’s no surprise that she wanted to go to college for engineering.

But that’s when she made the first of many pivots in her life.

In my conversation with her for my podcast "Inflection Point," Somersall recalled her first encounter with the engineering curriculum at Brown. “I just remember looking through the course catalog and being so uninspired by the content," she said. "And also intimidated, if I'm totally honest. I was like, ‘oh that doesn't sound like approachable’ or you know ‘I think I'm interested in engineering but that doesn't sound exciting to me.’”

Instead of taking up engineering as she had planned, Somersall got her undergraduate degree in art and architecture. It took her several years — and several pivots in her educational track — to rediscover her love of engineering at Rhode Island School of Design.

“My first experience with using 3D printers and CNC milling machines and mechanical engineering software [was at RISD]. I used all these tools to make crazy pieces of artwork,” Somersall said.

Listen to my conversation with engineer-turned-artist-turned-entrepreneur Suz Somersall here:

Her introduction to a new way of approaching design made all the difference in terms of connecting the practical application of engineering to her creative sensibilities.

If it hadn’t been for RISD faculty encouraging Somersall to take an artistic approach to implementing engineering concepts, she might never have returned to what she believes is her true maker self.

Unfortunately, most girls don’t get a chance to revisit engineering from a new, creative angle. Despite a big push in schools to get more girls involved in STEM, a huge drop off in interest happens around 8th grade. And this lack of interest translates to a gender gap in the world of tech and the sciences, which contributes to an often hostile working environment for the few women seeking success in STEM fields.

Somersall observed the interest drop-off phenomenon first-hand when, as a startup founder and University of Virginia business incubator participant, some female students expressed interest to her in learning more about 3D printing.

“I had a lot of female undergrad students that had never taken engineering classes before who kept coming to me, and they knew that I knew how to use a 3D printer on campus and I was creating these interesting objects — interesting to them — and they wanted to make them, too,” Somersall told me.

But after she encouraged the students to take some intro classes in UVA’s prototyping lab, she was dismayed to discover that the girls quickly lost interest after taking the course. When she looked into the reason behind their disinterest, Somersall discovered “the way that engineering is being taught in many universities is very different from the way I learned how to use engineering tools and software at the Rhode Island School of Design.”

Somersall’s many career pivots following this discovery led her to founding KiraKira, an online learning program and design app geared to teaching girls how to make 3D designs and turn their interests in design and engineering into lifelong passions.

Is it necessary for women to make as many pivots as Suz Somersall has to find their own place in the world of STEM?

By Lauren Schiller

Lauren Schiller is the creator and host of Inflection Point, a podcast and public radio show from KALW and PRX featuring stories of how women rise up. For more rising up stories, follow Lauren on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to the podcast on Android or Apple.

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