Erie’s Future In Science And Engineering May Be Female

By Sarah Grabski
Erie Times-News, Pa.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Monica Caldas from GE helped form a special day camp in 2011 for middle-school girls called GE Girls. The camp partners with local school districts to teach girls the importance of STEM with hands-on activities centering around robotics, electronics, chemistry and much more.

Erie Times-News, Pa.

Ten-year-old Gianna Collins won’t hesitate to tell you what she wants to be when she grows up.

A scientist.

The Northwestern Elementary fourth grader lit up as she talked about learning about the solar system and the Earth while she was working on a building challenge with classmate Emily DeForce, 9, during a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math workshop at Penn State Behrend in mid-January.

Collins is one of a number of young girls in Erie County who have been encouraged to show interest in a STEM field.

Monica Caldas, GE Transportation’s chief information officer for global services and digital solutions, has been one of those doing the encouraging for at least the past five years across the county.

“We want them to learn about what it means to be in STEM, to keep them engaged and to reduce intimidation and show them what’s possible,” Caldas said. “It’s about giving them the support they need.”

Caldas helped form a GE day camp in 2011 for middle-school girls called GE Girls. The camp, which has been in Erie since 2012, partners with local school districts and Behrend to teach girls the importance of STEM with hands-on activities centering around robotics, electronics, materials properties, plastics, chemistry, wind energy and more topics.

The results of these types of efforts might now be revealing themselves.

According to the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2016, out of the 15,239 people in Erie County who hold bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, 34 percent of them are women.

That number is up slightly from 2012 statistics from the same survey that indicated 33 percent of those who hold a bachelor’s degree in science and engineering are women. Nationally, 40 percent of the total number of people who hold degrees in those fields are women, according to 2016 statistics.

That comes as no surprise to Karinna Vernaza, interim director of Gannon University’s College of Engineering and Business.

Vernaza, who has been with Gannon for 14 years, said she has seen an increase in the number of female students showing interest in biomedical engineering over the past five years.

“We have pretty high enrollment in those areas, and I have to say the ratio is more women than men now,” she said. “There are possibilities, mostly in rehabilitation and other research areas.”

Sarah Ewing, dean of the College of Health Professions and Sciences at Gannon, agreed.

“Anecdotally, I would say we have a higher population of females coming in really committed to pursuing a bachelor’s in biology or chemistry,” she said. “It’s exciting for me.”

Nicole Shamitko-Klingensmith, a team leader for analytical services at Lord Corp. in Summit Township, is able to experience it firsthand.

“Our team is about 50/50,” Shamitko-Klingensmith said. “It’s four women and five men.”

But there is also a harsh reality in Erie that accompanies the higher numbers of females pursuing degrees in science and engineering. Maybe it’s not necessarily the fields and their makeup that are changing — maybe it’s the potential job market in town that is transforming.

“The reality is that our students don’t really stay in town,” Vernaza said. “The landscape is changing from that perspective. We used to have students stay locally and work for companies like GE, but that doesn’t happen really a whole lot anymore.”

GE Transportation has laid off around 1,600 workers in the past two years and has plans to lay off around 500 more this year. But the company, which employed as many as 18,000 people at its height in Erie, remains one of Erie County’s largest employers with about 2,500 employees.

“I have to tell you right now as we look at the number of engineers in town, there’s a lot that is changing,” Vernaza said. “Even Lord did a layoff. When we look at engineering, those two were some of the bigger companies that hired students from us.”

Lord Corp. eliminated 19 non-production jobs at its plant in Summit Township in October. In 2015, the company eliminated 92 jobs in Erie and Crawford counties. It now employs about 675 people, said to a company spokesman.

Shamitko-Klingensmith, who was hired in 2015, actually moved to Erie after graduating from West Virginia University to take a job at Lord with her husband.

“There are opportunities here (in Erie),” she said. “I know in academia, there are opportunities in the STEM fields, and Erie is also important in the plastics industry. … Of course, Lord is a great company for those in STEM fields.”

Vernaza said she travels annually with a group of female Gannon students to the Society of Women Engineers conference so they’re able to see opportunities nationwide and not just in Erie.

“Females in engineering are a hot commodity,” Vernaza said. “Not only is it exposure for them to see all of these companies like Keurig, Lockheed Martin and more that they could work for, it’s been very successful in getting internships for them, too.”

One of those students is Maggie Rutkowski, 21, a Gannon University junior in industrial engineering. Rutkowski, who used to dream of staying in Erie after she graduated, isn’t so sure anymore. Rutkowski’s family owns Industrial Sales and Manufacturing, 2609 W. 12th St., a company that specializes in the production of bearing caps and industrial products.

“Erie is one of my favorite cities in the world,” Rutkowski said. “When I was a freshman, I wanted to go work for my family business (after graduation) and Gannon has started giving me options and I realized I can literally do anything with this degree. I don’t know exactly where I want to end up.”

Even so, she expects to face challeneges.

After all, according to a Pew Research Center study released in January, 50 percent of women in STEM jobs said they experienced a form of gender discrimination in their workplace.

Caldas said she encountered this during a coding course in college.

“There were all of two girls in the class. One of the guys looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll code for you, you just do the design because that’s what you’re good at,'” she said. “I looked at him and thought, ‘I’ll show you.'”

This is why manufacturing companies have made the push in Erie to attract women to the fields of science and engineering through programs like GE Girls and Lord Corp.’s school industry program.

“It’s to break down this stigma that surrounds the science and engineering fields,” Shamitko-Klingensmith said. “You show them that science and math don’t have to be hard. They can be fun.”

The way to combat STEM gender bias at a young age is by teaching girls and their families how to foster an environment that is welcoming and open to STEM activities, Caldas said.

“In my career, I’ve experienced situations where people have doubted my ability because I am a woman. Do I know enough technically to operate this system?” she said. “My attitude has always been ‘I’ll show you.’ And I always do.”

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