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West // West Oahu Coverstory
Christina O’Connor

Girls Learn STEM At Waipahu ‘Wow’

SWE-UHM members (back, from left) Chi Jow, Dr. Olga Boric-Lubecke (adviser), Ryan Harada, Ehsaneh Shah, Joanie Wong, Ada Garcia, Simeng Qu, (front) Tiffany Au, Graig Ganitano, Carolynn Kitamura, Valerie Mencias. Photo from SWE-UHM.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that although women make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce, they hold down less than 25 percent of the jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

And according to the American Society of Engineering Education, women accounted for only 17.8 percent of undergraduate degree earners from engineering schools in 2009.

To combat such grim statistics, the Society of Women Engineers at the University of Hawaii (SWE-UHM) hosts its fifth annual “Wow! That’s Engineering” program from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 9 at Waipahu High School. The goal of the student group is to introduce the idea of pursuing a career in engineering and technology to girls in grades 6 to 8.

“One of the things that SWE is big on is trying to get girls to be more interested in engineering, and trying to encourage and empower females to aspire toward trying technology, engineering and math,” says Valerie Mencias, SWE-UHM vice president of external affairs. “We believe that has to do with reaching out to girls at a young age.”

The event features activities, project displays and industry exhibits by groups such as Hawaiian Electric Co., Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, as well as the local professional division of Society of Women Engineers. The activities are designed to introduce students to real-life problems and work scenarios that engineers face.

This year’s theme is Malama Aina, or to care for the land.

“In application to the engineering world, we want to teach future scientists and engineers to embrace renewable energy, design with sustainability in mind, and to be smart with resources so that we can help reduce consumption and protect the earth,” explained SWE-UHM president Carolynn Kitamura.

“We hope that students will be able to gain valuable hands-on experience working as engineers for the day and maybe even decide to pursue a lifetime career in the STEM fields,” Kitamura added.

The university club is affiliated with SWE, a national nonprofit that is dedicated to empowering women to succeed in engineering through outreach, advocacy, training and development programs, networking opportunities and scholarships. Locally, in addition to the student club, there also is SWE Hawaiian Islands Section for engineering professionals.

Mencias asserted that it is important to increase the number of females in STEM fields because of the wide array of job opportunities, and she believes that part of the reason for the gender disparity is traceable to the lack of exposure that younger girls have to these types of careers.

Even Mencias, a Waipahu resident, admitted that she never really considered a career in engineering until she reached college. Now a senior studying mechanical engineering, it’s not uncommon for her to be one of only a few girls in many of her classes.

“There are so many jobs, but there are not many women in (these jobs). We can get there, and it will change if we just get more girls (interested).”

“Women are still considered a minority in the STEM fields to this day, so it is important to let these girls know that science and engineering can be for girls, too,” Kitamura added.

“Even if students don’t want to be an engineer afterward, I think we will feel successful just to let them know what is out there,” Mencias said.

While “Wow” is targeted at middle school girls, all students are welcome to attend. Registration is $5 for students and free for educators and parents, and lunch is provided. Register online by Feb. 8 at wow2013hawaii.eventbrite.com.

For more information, email uhswe.wow@gmail.com.

(Do not call the school; all inquires should be directed to SWE via email.)

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