When Jessica Hughes moved to Cincinnati in 2016 for a new job as a sixth-grade STEM teacher, she noticed that something was amiss. Along one wall of her classroom sat three 3D printers, which she planned to use to teach her students about computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing. The boys in her class quickly took to the machines. “Many of them were in Lego leagues and robotics competitions, and they already had a lot of experience with CAD design and 3D printing,” she says. But these concepts were brand new to the girls. By the time the girls entered Hughes’ classroom, they were already far behind their male counterparts. “The disparity was disheartening.”
She decided to nip the problem in the bud and address it one grade earlier by creating a girls’ 3D-printing club for the fifth graders at her school. Once a week, the girls could meet for an hour after school to learn about CAD — a key digital design tool that allows engineers to develop and test their ideas inside a computer — and build their own 3D projects.
To find resources, Hughes called the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative (GCSC). The community group promotes science, technology, engineering and math, and includes representatives from Procter & Gamble, Duke Energy, General Electric and other large companies in the Cincinnati area.
Hughes quickly adapted the group’s CAD curriculum for her club and also reached out to GE and its program called GEMS — Girls in Engineering, Math and Science — which connects female engineers with young mentees. “They were just as excited as I was,” she recalls. “Every week for the next three and a half months, GEMS from GE came to my classroom to work with my girls,” Hughes recalls.
During club meetings, the GE mentors talked to the students about their projects, gave them advice and helped them unravel the mysteries of CAD. They also talked about their jobs, their careers, their responsibilities, and what it’s like being a female in their position. “It helped my girls make connections to real life and STEM careers,” Hughes says. “It opened their eyes to possibilities.”
Later, GE invited Hughes and the girls to visit their Additive Technology Center in Cincinnati, a cutting-edge facility where GE engineers are developing 3D-printed parts for jet engines. When they arrived, they got a surprise: Their GEMS mentors were there. The women shared lunch with the girls and showed them movies about additive manufacturing techniques, which include 3D printing. Then they toured the facility and checked out the industrial-grade, laser-powered 3D printers that were building complex parts, layer by layer, from fine metallic powder. “The girls were just mesmerized,” Hughes says. “Seeing these 3D printers that were fabricating metal pieces from sparks and powder was mind-blowing. They immediately started talking about the things they could make.”
This fall, Hughes is seeing the impact of her efforts. In her sixth-grade CAD classroom, many of the girls from her club have emerged as leaders. “In one of my classes, a boy asked how to align a hole in the center of his design,” Hughes says. “I wasn’t sure how to help him, but one of my girls went up to the board and showed the entire class how to do it. It was pretty amazing.”
The girls have also taken the lead with the club. Hughes originally planned to offer it only to her fifth graders this year, but the returning sixth graders weren’t ready to give it up. They’ve remained heavily involved, mentoring the fifth graders and working on their own projects.
Hughes has achieved her original goal but realizes that there still is much to be done. “Girls tend to have forced blinders, where they see their futures in nursing and teaching, instead of engineering and the sciences,” she says. “I want to take those blinders off.”