Goal: Turn girls into engineering 'rock stars'

Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 20, 2016

When a girl expresses interest in the Kenton County School District’s Women’s Engineering Academy, Francis O’Hara always asks her the same question.

O’Hara, the director of the district’s Academies of Innovation and Technology, wants to know if applicants to the new program have ever heard of Ukari Figgs.

“Nine times out of 10, the answer is no,” said O’Hara, who started the Women’s Engineering Academy last August. “It’s disappointing because she’s so accomplished, and she’s from right here in Kentucky.”

Figgs, a Kentucky native, helped lead Purdue University to a NCAA Championship win and later helped the Los Angeles Sparks win its WNBA Championship in 2001. She coached both high-school and college basketball and went on to be named an assistant athletic director for women’s basketball at the University of Kentucky. Most importantly to O’Hara: She used her engineering degree from Purdue to land an engineering position at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc.

Figgs is a great role model for girls in her home state in a field where few female role models exist, he said. She possesses talent and intelligence, but it’s a characteristic she didn’t possess early in her educational path that helped lead to her success in engineering, according to O’Hara.

“She was fearless,” he said. “That’s what I want for our girls.”

In U.S. colleges and universities, less than 20 percent of the students enrolled in engineering programs are women. The percentage of women working as engineers in the U.S. drops even lower, he said. While there are many contributing factors, O’Hara said one barrier for girls interested in engineering is their own insecurity.

“They have been told they can’t do it,” he said. “They’re afraid they won’t be able to do the advanced math or they won’t fit in, but that’s just not true. It’s a ridiculous stereotype that needs to be broken.”

In order to provide girls entering high school with a pathway to engineering education, O’Hara helped create the district’s first all-female engineering academy. It began at the start of this school year with 13 freshman scholars.

“It’s the first of its kind in Kentucky,” O’Hara said of the academy, which is housed at Simon Kenton High School.

The engineering academy offers female students the opportunity to learn and develop a wide knowledge base across many fields of engineering without the pressure of a co-ed classroom, he said. It puts them on target when they graduate high school to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field. Female students begin in the ninth grade and continue through the 12th grade. Academy scholars spend the first half of their school day at their respective school and the second half in the academy. There, they take advanced English and math courses, and accelerated engineering courses.

For the 13 girls enrolled in the academy, all agree it’s the best part of their school day.

“We do a lot of hands-on projects,” said Hailey Poe, 15. “It’s real-life learning. Engineering is incorporated in almost everything we do.”

While many advanced students feel they’re in competition with their peers, the girls enrolled in the program said they feel the academy fosters the opposite dynamic.

“As a group, we want to see each other succeed,” said Erin Thompson, 15. “When we see someone doing well, we’re not competitive. Each of us just pushes the rest of the group to do better.”

The Women’s Engineering Academy is among 10 Kenton County Schools Academies of Innovation and Technology and the fourth to focus on engineering. The district already offered academies in green engineering, structural engineering and robotics engineering. Since the engineering academies began four years ago, the student population in each has been overwhelmingly male, according to engineering teacher Adam Klaine.

The Women’s Engineering Academy brought a welcomed change, he said.

“At first, I was actually a little intimidated,” Klaine admitted, adding that he had grown accustomed to teaching a classroom full of boys. “Now theirs is the class I look forward to most every day.”

In engineering, a field in which problem-solving skills reign supreme, a diverse work force is needed, he said. The Women’s Engineering Academy’s robotics team proved those skills earlier this month after qualifying for the state level of the VEX Robotics Competition. The team was the first out of any of Kenton’s engineering academies to qualify at the state level. The girls placed seventh at the competition.

“These girls are rock stars,” said O’Hara. “We couldn’t have a better first group to be big sisters to our next group of girls.”

Before the academy began in August, the staff reached out to about 150 girls who were on track to take advanced math and English courses in ninth grade. Of those, 13 signed up for the academy.

Next school year, nearly 40 girls are expected to join the academy as freshman.

“It’s all been word of mouth,” O’Hara said. “Girls are seeing the success of our first group and interest is growing. We couldn’t be happier with the progress.”