KU students launch ‘Make it Happen’ conference to encourage girls in STEM

University of Kansas engineering students Alita Joseph, left, and Ashley Hutton organized a women-in-STEM conference Saturday, Feb. 17 for moms and daughters as part of a yearlong capstone project. Joseph and Hutton are pictured at the Earth, Energy and Environment Center on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018.

Growing up in Lawrence, Alita Joseph always felt her dreams were within reach. Education was emphasized in her household, and her mother, she said, always “made a point” of encouraging the Joseph siblings in their interests, particularly those in STEM fields.

That was Joseph’s normal. Then she grew up and entered college, where young women like her seemed few and far between at the University of Kansas School of Engineering. Joseph, a mechanical engineering major, said it’s common in her classes to see only 10 women among a room of 100 students.

“In the beginning, it was a little weird … but honestly I’ve gotten used to it,” Joseph said. “It’s sad that that is the norm.”

But Joseph and her classmate, KU computer science major Ashley Hutton, don’t want that reality for future generations of girls. That’s why the two seniors have spent the last year developing a capstone project meant to inspire other young women to pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and math), which have been traditionally male-dominated. Female engineers, for example, represented only about 15 percent of the engineering workforce in 2015, according to National Science Board statistics.

The result of that yearlong capstone project, this weekend’s “Make it Happen” conference, will invite 50 mother-daughter pairs to the KU campus for a day of STEM activities, demonstrations, keynote speakers, student panels and facility tours, all free of charge. Joseph said the event, featuring female faculty and industry professionals, is meant to empower middle school girls in their STEM goals. All 50 invitees were chosen based on essay applications that asked the girls about their STEM interests and career goals.

It was important to Joseph and Hutton that the event be as accessible as possible, Joseph said. The pair received some modest funding from KU’s SELF program (Self Engineering Leadership Fellows) to launch their capstone project, but also wanted to provide participants with extras like T-shirts and gift bags. A crowdsourcing campaign via LaunchKU successfully hit its $3,000 goal within about a week, along with nearly $800 in additional donations.

The funds have allowed organizers to purchase supplies, food, drinks and other essentials.

“Everyone’s been really supportive and enthusiastic, and even when we’ve asked for volunteers to help out at this event, they’ve been really willing to lend a helping hand,” said Joseph, who noted that the conference has attracted female professionals from STEM companies like Garmin, Black & Veatch and Zee.Aero.

In addition to keynote lectures, student panels and KU School of Engineering tours, the day will see moms and daughters building their own mechanical hand devices, Joseph says, and participating in robotics demonstrations.

As a kid, Joseph enjoyed attending local STEM events, including KU’s long-running Engineering Expo for elementary and middle school students. “It was good exposure,” she said, “but it wasn’t necessarily anything that was focused on bringing women together and highlighting the fact that there are women engineers out there.”

“That’s kind of what inspired this in the first place — to make this the norm and to make middle school girls today realize that there are females in engineering,” Joseph says.

Though both she and Hutton are graduating this spring, Joseph said she hopes “Make it Happen” will continue at KU.

“We’re hoping that somebody picks it up next year, because there are so many things we can continue to do,” Joseph said. “Just in this past year, I feel we’ve really laid the foundation of getting contacts and having an idea of how to run an event of this scope and this scale.

“It’s just the start from here,” she added.