PHOTO: RBR offers a unique curriculum in its Academy of Engineering, which encourages both male and females to explore. Some of the female students availing themselves of this challenging curriculum in S.T.E.M. are pictured above: (left to right) Kara Forest, Red Bank; Rebecca Sullivan, Shrewsbury; Shelley Banfield, Shrewsbury; Tara McDermott, Little Silver; Salma Zuniga-Rojas, Belmar; Natalie Gunderson, Neptune City.
LITTLE SILVER, NJ - For over 15 years, the Red Bank Regional High School (RBR) has provided an engineering program academy as a rich curriculum option for its students. RBR’s Academy of Engineering program is modeled on curriculum developed from Project Lead the Way (a non-profit organization that develops educational S.T.E.M programs in conjunction with industry). Since its inception it has more than doubled its enrollment with over 120 students enrolled this year, of which nearly 20% are female. This fairly represents the percentage of women who graduate college with engineering degrees; however, RBR is one of the few schools that give students a real flavor for the industry prior to attending college.
RBR’s program is a set of sequenced courses that students take in lieu of their 90 minute block for electives every day. Freshman and sophomores take introductory courses in engineering and computer design. Upper classman can then choose among courses (all honors) in: computer integrated manufacturing, aerospace or biotechnical engineering, civil engineering and architecture, and engineering design and development.
PHOTO: RBR Academy of Engineering student, senior Mikayla Byron of Red Bank works on a project during engineering class.
RBR Engineering teacher Dan Pierce, a mechanical engineer, explains, “This program provides a great exploration opportunity for our students. They either get excited about the a career in engineering and enroll in some great engineering programs in schools like Virginia Tech, Stevens, and Rutgers to name a few, or they realize that want to do something else.”
Either way, the students learn a great deal that will either help them succeed in engineering in college or benefit any area of study since it focuses on problem solving, critical thinking and team work.
For instance Dan Pierce describes last year’s senior project as a beautiful orchestration of all the skills the students had acquired throughout the program.
He explains, “The students chose to tackle the problem of preventing carbon monoxide poisoning in the home and came up with a device that could be easily mounted in a window. Utilizing a type of temperature sensor the devise would sense the levels of carbon monoxide in a room and then turn on exhaust fans in addition to sounding audio and visual alarms. The students created engineering drawings which they turned into a prototype with both purchased and fabricated parts. (The latter was accomplished by using the departments own 3-d printer for fabrication.)”
While the program is still heavily represented by males, it always includes a steady contingent of females who have discerned just what this unique program has to offer.
Freshman Rebecca Sullivan, Shrewsbury, comments, “I have been interested in engineering for a while. In seventh grade I heard from my friends about what was going on in the academies. I looked on the website and learned about it and realized just how lucky I was to have this academy available to me.” She adds, “It has more than exceeded my expectations. I love it. It is really fascinating how it provides a basis in everything we use and know. In class the other day, we learned some basic information and then we just started creating a cable car after doing sketching and annotating objects.”
Most of the girls who are enrolled in the Academy of Engineering do share one thing, a strength and love of math and science.
Senior Natalie Gunderson, Neptune City, comments, I knew since sixth grade that my strength was in math and science, and I could have pursued computer science, but I much rather build stuff. It is challenging but it is a good challenge and rather stimulating.”
In discussing why their numbers remain so low, a representation of female students in the RBR Academy of Engineering pondered the circumstances.
Natalie Gunderson stated, “I think, from a young age, girls are given Barbie dolls and boys are given legos. It is definitely intimidating, and common knowledge that this field is dominated by men.”
Junior Kara Forest, Red Bank, agreed adding, “I don’t think guys are built a certain way, it is just they were exposed to it (S.T.E.M.). I was scared a bit at first (entering the male-dominated program) and I am sure that scares girls away, but once I got into it, it was amazing and really no problem.”
Several of the girls are set on a career in engineering while others see it as a great program that will help them with anything they pursue.
Senior Salma Zuniga Rojas, Belmar, is continuing her college search and, after three years in the engineering academy, believes she may study criminal justice, but she recalls how much she learned from problem solving using teamwork in the RBR engineering program.
Some girls have already had some remarkable real-life examples to guide them on their path to a career choice. Freshman Tara McDermott, Little Silver, is already thinking about a career in electrical engineering since her brother has a great job as an electrical engineer designing special suits for entertainers. Her mom is also a computer engineer, providing an indisputable role model for females in a male-dominated industry. Similarly, Kara Forrest’s brother is an RBR Engineering Academy graduate who continued to study engineering in college. For her aspirations, Kara believes she would like to pursue environmental engineering and possibly join “Engineers without Borders” which builds irrigation systems and brings electricity to areas of the world still lacking in these basic necessities.
All the girls would like to encourage more girls to take advantage of this opportunity for a unique field of study that RBR provides. They offer the following advice.
Junior Shelley Banfield states, “At first you might feel awkward as a minority in the class, but once you start talking to everyone you will be just fine. I have made a lot of friends in the class and everything is just normal (like any other class.)”
Kara adds, “Just believe you are as talented as the person next to you. Every day you will learn something new about yourself and just what you are capable of.”