By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — About 20 students from Iroquois Middle School meet each week to build and pilot basic underwater robots through the SeaPerch program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Navy. Less than a quarter of those students are young women.
A 2012 study by the Girl Scouts of America suggests Niskayuna’s SeaPerch group is on par with women who hold positions in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields: about 25% of the total workforce.
Jennifer Rizzo, a manager at Knowles Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna and the SeaPerch coordinator for the school district, said her mentors had to introduce her to the STEM fields.
“Growing up, people said, ‘Hey, why don’t you become an engineer,’” she said. “I was like, ‘I don’t even know what that is.’”
SeaPerch, she says, may smooth the process for the girls at Iroquois Middle School. “This is a way to let them see what engineering is all about and figure out whether or not this is something that interests them in the future,” Rizzo said.
It worked for Nada Mohamed, an 8th grade student and one of four girls participating in the SeaPerch program. The program is only open to middle school students, but Mohamed hopes to take technology classes at Niskayuna High School next year.
“I like the fact that I can build something,” said Mohamed.
But the students don’t worry about gender barriers. They just get to work customizing their robots, said Brian Dohn, a mechanical engineer at KAPL and the mentor for the sole team of girls.
“They haven’t made any comments to me about there not being any women in engineering or anything like that,” he said. “I don’t think any of these girls are going to let anything hold them back. They’re gung-ho.”