Design Squad Global – Empowering Girls Everywhere!

Contributed by Katie Muson and Saranya Sathananthan of WGBH Educational Foundation

Men outnumber women in the engineering workforce by more than 2:1, and the ratio becomes even greater when factoring in racial and ethnic minority contribution. 

Why does such a gap exist in a generation full of intelligent, capable young women, and how can we work to increase the existence of female engineers worldwide?

The gender gap in STEM fields starts as early as middle school, and women who do make it through the academic arena and enter technical careers often find themselves in less-than supportive work environments that make remaining in the field a constant up-hill battle. The solution to recruiting and retaining more women in the global engineering workforce requires initiating change in the professional culture. Educators play a crucial role in shifting this dynamic for future engineers at earlier stages in the pathway by engaging in the work of breaking down stereotypes about who can be an engineer and bolstering the self-confidence of girls in STEM. By making engineering more appealing to girls, we can empower them to see their own abilities as young engineers who are capable of making a significant impact on the world.  

Design Squad Global (DSG), a digital initiative created by Boston public media producer WGBH, has diligently worked to boost underrepresented youth interest in STEM through programs that encourage the development of engineering skills and cross-cultural collaboration. In DSG clubs, kids ages 10-13 engage with global problems that require engineering solutions, such as designing and building an emergency shelter or a structure that can withstand an earthquake. Not only do these clubs provide kids with authentic opportunities to explore engineering with a real purpose, but they also give kids the chance to connect with students in a club from a different country half a world away. Kids share their experiences with those from other backgrounds by swapping design ideas, giving and receiving feedback, and presenting their final designs to one another through photos and videos. Through these interactions, they are able to improve their global competencies by learning more about each other’s cultures, communities, and lives.

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Research has been imperative in understanding strengths and shortcomings of the DSG club programs, and has provided concrete evidence that DSG is having a positive impact on kids around the world. The findings of a pilot study involving seven DSG clubs across the U.S. and seven in Southern Africa showed that:

  • Students exhibited an increased understanding of engineering, the design process, and other science concepts in the curriculum.

  • Students demonstrated an increased understanding of how engineering and invention can make a positive difference in the world.

  • Students demonstrated an increased interest in different cultures around the globe, as well as an increased ability and inclination to recognize different perspectives.

60% of students experienced a shift in their awareness from general, more stereotypical differences between themselves and the kids in their partner club to specific distinctions between the cultures. One Club Leader from the US noted, “When they [DSG participants] saw pictures of the club members in South Africa, and saw that they wear shoes and are fully clothed, they were really surprised. Their experience with Africa has been in history and media, of African tribes, not people in a modern society. They realized that their preconceptions were off, and this fostered an interest in issues that other people are experiencing.”

Having a purpose driven approach to cross-cultural collaboration is a valuable tool that few students have the privilege of experiencing, thus highlighting why programs like DSG are so significant to the next cohort of engineers and STEM leaders.

  • Students displayed increased confidence that they could solve problems and create change. 

    Safe%20Landing%20Pic%203.jpgThis finding is especially meaningful, as Fabricio Campiz of the Benjamin Franklin Science Corner in Asunción, Paraguay notes, “I consider these projects suitable for the reality that we face in our country, where creativity and aptitude of children are overlooked by a decadent and obsolete educational system.”

    Neo, a girl who had participated in the DSG club in South Africa reflected that, “After doing Design Squad Global, I saw that you can be creative. You realize that as a girl, you can do some stuff that people told you that a girl can’t do. But after doing engineering, it’s amazing. I started seeing what I’m good at… It really helped me find my inner me.” She is one of many girls who have decided to pursue engineering further because of her eye-opening experiences with DSG.

It isn’t surprising that the highest reported quality that young girls look for in a career is the ability to help others and make a difference in individual lives. By demonstrating to these girls that engineering is an incredible way to make an impact and by proving to them that they are more than capable of doing anything they set their mind to, there will be no stopping them!

Photo credits: The Benjamin Franklin Science Corner in Asuncion, Paraguay 2017