Encouraging Diversity in the Field of Engineering

  • Teresa Vandersloot
  • Director, Women in Engineering
  • College of Engineering

Project Overview

  • This program provides activities for young students to deepen their understanding of the fields of engineering.


  • Encourage students from underrepresented populations to consider a career path in engineering.
  • Provide a supportive learning environment to help students advance knowledge of engineering.


  • Students/schools throughout Michigan

Form(s) of Engagement

  • Community-Engaged Creative Activity
  • Community-Engaged Teaching and Learning
Students are able to participate in a variety of learning activities including computer programming and an introduction to robotics.

A single sheet of standard-sized printer paper is all it takes to elicit a popular childhood memory. Strategically folding and unfolding, creasing and rotating, until a perfectly crafted, lightweight flying machine is engineered.

Paper airplanes can provide endless entertainment, but the creation process and overall design can also teach students the best ways to increase (or decrease) distance, speed, and overall flyability while taking constraints and limitations into consideration. This seemingly simple activity is often one of the first introductions to engineering students have.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recognizes the importance of encouraging students to explore engineering, as their website outlines crafts for young minds to do, including a step-by-step tutorial to crafting paper airplanes.

Additionally, they provide activities for students to expand their understanding of the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) with a major emphasis in encouraging those in underrepresented populations to participate. These populations may be identified by race, ethnicity, age, sex, and gender.

NASA's dedication to both diversity and inclusion were put on international display on a clear Monday morning in April of 2010 when they sent a flight crew of seven into space for 15 days making history for the Space Shuttle Discovery spacecraft as its longest voyage. Among members of the historic crew were three aerospace engineers, including Stephanie Wilson, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, and Naoko Yamazaki. Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a fourth astronaut who was living at the International Space Station, helped mark another "first" during this flight as the first time four women were in space simultaneously.

According to NASA's website, women continue to lead and inspire in the STEM fields, and NASA is committed to recruiting and retaining women to help the agency continue to push boundaries and achieve the impossible.

As the STEM disciplines continue to evolve, especially in engineering, so do the opportunities for diverse populations to join the field.

Teresa Vandersloot, director of Women in Engineering in the College of Engineering at Michigan State University (MSU), is hoping to encourage more diversity by hosting a day filled with activities and crafts revolving around engineering called, "Introduce a Girl to Engineering," which takes place every February. Despite the program name, all are welcome to attend no matter how they identify.

The first event took place in 2016 and was an expansion of technology workshops the College of Engineering hosted for Girl Scout troops.

"We wanted to create something that would help underrepresented students explore a career path in engineering and understand just how broad the field can be," Vandersloot said. "Research has shown the importance of exposing youth to positive role models in STEM at a young age, especially as students typically decide if they want to move forward in progressively challenging courses crucial to engineering, like math, in 4-8th grades."

According to Scientista, an organization dedicated to supporting and connecting women nationwide in the STEM fields, there is a "stereotype threat" when it comes to inequalities in the field of engineering. This "threat" refers to specific fears including confirming negative prejudices, having a lack of confidence, and lacking positive role models.

Addressing these stereotypes and eliminating barriers, while providing opportunities for students to increase their knowledge of engineering, paved the way for "Introduce a Girl to Engineering."

A Day of Engineering

Elementary and middle school students from across the state of Michigan are invited to attend the annual program, which takes place in the Engineering building on MSU's campus. The last in-person event held in 2019 saw more than 800 students in attendance, many of whom were from the mid-Michigan area.

On the day of the event, students are instructed to sign up for and participate in prearranged "tracks." One track involves three activities, and past events have typically provided 18-20 different tracks.

One example of an available track during a previous program included activities titled, "Delicious DNA," a "Paper Airplane Challenge," and "Bridge Building":

  • Through Delicious DNA, students learned the basics of DNA while building their own strand of DNA using Twizzlers, Gummy Bears, and toothpicks.
  • The Paper Airplane Challenge invited participants to make paper airplanes with MSU's rocketry team, then compete to see whose airplane soared the farthest.
  • Bridge building challenged students to build a bridge using only straws and masking tape. The bridge's strength was tested using pennies with the goal being to hold 100 pennies without the bridge crumbling.

Other activities have included making lava lamps and slime, building towers, exploring circuits, identifying different crystals, and learning about robotics.

Each track is led by a professional within the field, who acts as a passionate champion and mentor for the topic they're teaching.

"We partner with faculty, doctoral students, undergraduates, and staff to introduce and inspire students to consider engineering as a career path," Vandersloot said. "These partnerships give faculty a chance to showcase their research through educational, hands-on activities."

Engineering building located on MSU's campus.

Volunteer Support

Thanks to the support of volunteers, who often return year after year, attendees gain a new appreciation for engineering and have fun while doing it. A typical event sees upwards of 120 volunteers and can include MSU students, staff, and faculty, and parents/guardians of the attendees.

Individuals who are interested in volunteering are required to go through a training session to learn how to provide students with the best experience and understanding of what they're learning. Throughout the training, volunteers are reminded of the importance of being a positive role model, and how to offer words of encouragement about the benefits of a career in engineering.

On the day of the event, volunteers are present in every activity room to assist, but Vandersloot says they are asked to take a hands-off approach while helping attendees. Instead, they are urged to ask questions that provide guidance and support, offer feedback, and remain enthusiastic about the topics.

Additional Programs

In addition to "Introduce a Girl to Engineering," MSU's Women in Engineering within the College of Engineering hosts other programs to encourage diversity in STEM including "Spartan Girls Who Code" and "Technovation."

According to their website, "Spartan Girls Who Code" is an MSU student-led coding club introducing 6-12th grade students to the wide world of computing by combining games and mini-projects with guest speakers and team-building activities. All are invited to attend, even those with no coding experience.

"Technovation," another program aimed at 6-12th grade students interested in coding, will teach attendees how to design and implement a project in the programming language, Python, while learning the fundamentals of coding.

Registration for these events can also be found on the Women in Engineering's website.

Positive Feedback

"Parents and teachers have reached out to us year after year to express their gratitude for the event," Vandersloot said. "They are excited about seeing the enthusiasm their students conveyed during the day and we often hear about their plans to return in following years."

Vandersloot continued saying that aside from seeing her own students engaged in teaching and leading, one of her favorite parts of the day is hearing from the young students who attend.

"I really enjoy when a student tells me about something new they learned through one of the activities they participated in," she said. "The goal of the event is to pique students' interests and show how broad the field can be and we are continually seeing the benefits of hosting, especially as attendance has increased over the years."

Vandersloot added that past years' "Introduce a Girl to Engineering" events have created long-lasting partnerships with teachers and schools around the state as the program has evolved and has even added buy-in from sponsors like General Motors for the 2023 event.

The upcoming "Introduce a Girl to Engineering" day will be the first in-person event since the pandemic began, taking place during National Engineer's Week, on February 25, 2023. Registration will open in January, and a link to more information can be found on the Women in Engineering's website.

As Vandersloot says, the College of Engineering's dedication to introducing, inspiring, and engaging those from underrepresented populations to pursue careers in engineering is unwavering.

"We have the opportunity to provide an encouraging, supportive learning environment for students, while also addressing the need for more diversity of thought," she said. "We look forward to seeing these students year after year and can't wait to see what they accomplish in the future."

  • Written by Emily Springer, University Outreach and Engagement

Like this E-Newsletter? Subscribe