CT SEED Sparks Interest in Engineering and Promotes Diversity

             Jenna Ditto                    Bridget Hegarty

             Jenna Ditto                    Bridget Hegarty

Bridget Hegarty (GRD ’19) and Jenna Ditto (GRD ’21) are gearing up for CT SEED (Connecticut Students Explore Engineering Day), to be held on March 24 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.. Though they’ve hosted outreach events through their organization, GradSWE, CT SEED will be the largest event they’ve ever done. They stopped by CITY to discuss GradSWE and their plans for CT SEED.

Q: Tell me about GradSWE!

Bridget Hegarty: I can talk a little bit about GradSWE because I started it. GradSWE has existed on campus for four years now, and its mission  is to bring together anyone who supports the inclusion of women in engineering. Most of our members are women in engineering, but we also have a lot of people from physics, chemistry, and the biological sciences. Our events are professional development in nature, or outreach, which is what CT SEED falls under, and then networking and community building. Our point is to be a place on campus to encourage women to stick with engineering. Jenna is in charge of outreach for GradSWE, so she can talk more about CT SEED.

Jenna Ditto: We’d been doing smaller outreach events for a while, years now. Typically, we have, maybe, 15 to 40 students on average, from middle school and high school. It’s mostly students in New Haven, West Haven, and Orange. CT SEED came to be because we were brainstorming ways to reach a broader population in Connecticut, maybe a population that is not so fortunate to be so close to Yale and to have all these resources and interesting programming available to them. CT SEED is for the entire state of Connecticut, and we’ve already got people signing up from all over the place, which is really cool. It’s for middle school students, and the plan is to introduce the students to different types of engineering through hands-on activities.

BH: We have activities that focus on exposing them to the engineering design process, and that’s a really big part of what we’re trying to do with engineering days. We’re trying to get people to start thinking like an engineer and know what the design process is, to be comfortable with trying something that seems really hard in the beginning, and to try coming up with a solution in a way that’s different from what you get in your classes.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves?

BH: I was really involved with the Society of Women Engineers as an undergrad at Cornell, and Cornell has a very strong SWE section. I was involved with outreach in SWE at Cornell, and I did a lot of outreach for both the Ithaca community and the broader New York state community, and that exposed me to how great it was. When I came to Yale, I realized that there wasn’t anything for grad students in terms of SWE or just an engineering group for women, so at the end of my first year I contacted a bunch of the departments in engineering to see if anyone else was interested. That’s how I started GradSWE and started working with undergrads who were also doing the same thing at the same time. Along the way, we got our section registered as a national section in the Society for Women Engineers, so that gives us a lot more resources because SWE is very large. There are grants we can apply for to get money for events, and there are scholarships that our members can apply for, which is pretty great.

JD: I wasn’t super involved in SWE as an undergrad, partially because the section at my school wasn’t super active at the time. But I was doing student outreach not related to SWE. It was math and engineering tutoring, along with hands-on activities. I really enjoyed it, so coming to grad school, I knew it was something I wanted to get involved with more. Finding an active SWE section that was really active in outreach, thanks to Bridget, was super exciting.

BH: Right, because you came on as Outreach Coordinator from the beginning.

JD: It was something that I knew I wanted to get involved in from my experience during undergrad, and I wasn’t exactly sure in what way, but finding a strong SWE section and finding that it was something I really cared about was exciting.

BH: Right. In our first year we didn’t have anyone who was specifically doing outreach, so it was great to bring Jenna on because that allowed us to go from going to other organizations’ outreach events to doing five or six outreach events of our own throughout the year.

JD: Typically, they’re smaller. [CT SEED] is our first event on a different scale.

BH: They’re usually around 30 people. Just because the nature of a lot of our activities means they take a lot of hands-on attention and are a little bit more expensive, so you can only do it for around 30 people.

Q: How has Tsai CITY helped you plan CT SEED?

JD: Tsai CITY has been so generous as to fund part of the program. Since this is a larger event, it’s sort of the first time we’ve really had to explore many different sources for funding. So it was great to find out about Tsai CITY.

BH: Yeah, and the money we got from Tsai CITY was the first pot of money that we got for it, and it was kind of like, “Now we have something where we can get this event off the ground, and we can start ordering supplies. We can begin. We know that this will be possible.” We didn’t know necessarily on what scale, but it also helped us get other funding sources because when you can show SWE that we aren’t just asking for $4,000 from them, we’re also asking for x amount of money from these other sources, they will want to give us more money because they see that we actually need this and are exploring other options.

JD: We’re using our funding from Tsai CITY specifically for activities supplies for the most part.

Q: What is most exciting about CT SEED?

BH: Most of our outreach is mostly just a hands-on activity, and you get exposed to people in engineering and kind of see people who look like you. And so taking that further, the idea that you can be what you see yourself as, the last part of the day will be a session with engineers from around Connecticut, who can speak about their experiences and how they got into engineering. We’re hoping that having a diverse group of volunteers and  having this panel will get more of the students who are there to imagine themselves as engineers, and I think that’s a really big part of what we do. Like, “I can actually do that! Engineers aren’t just people who are by themselves with no social skills, and are white males.”

JD: Yeah, I feel like in a lot of talks about diversity in engineering, people like to bring up the fact that if you Google “engineer,” you get clipart of basically someone who looks like a mad scientist. A lot of what we’re trying to do is to say anyone can be an engineer; you don’t have to look like that.

BH: And that’s one of the reasons the event is designed for girls and boys.  We want boys to also see girls in engineering and start to work with them and realize, “Oh, we need to support this, and this is important.”

JD: We have a program for parents as well. The idea is that a lot of them are driving in from elsewhere, not just a five minute drive,  so we wanted them to have something constructive to do. We’re having a talk at the beginning to discuss strategies to engage their kids in STEM, and where to start if their kids are interested in pursuing STEM study.

EMMA CHANEN is the Digital Media Intern at Tsai CITY.

Emma Chanen