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No boys allowed at engineering contest

A speedboat race is making waves at Danforth Collegiate by linking the words “girl” and “engineer.”

During last month’s Grade 7 skills challenge, girls from eight schools met in a Danforth classroom to design Styrofoam speedboats, fit them with propellers and hand-picked motors, then race them down an eavestrough full of water.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” called out Danforth teacher Roberta Tevlin, holding a stopwatch and clipboard as her students coached the Grade 7s.

Then she corrected herself.

“Oh – just ladies! We have 25 minutes left to test.”

From left, Grade 10 Danforth student Elyse watches with Alvin and Tiana, both Grade 7 students from Cosburn Middle School, as their Styrofoam speedboat purrs through a time-trial during the Grade 7 Skills Challenge at Danforth Collegiate on April 23. Elyse said the team chose a lightweight, double-hulled design that held up well even after a melting episode with the hot-glue gun. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

From left, Grade 10 Danforth student Elyse watches with Alvin and Tiana, both Grade 7 students from Cosburn Middle School, as their Styrofoam speedboat purrs through a time-trial during the Grade 7 Skills Challenge at Danforth Collegiate on April 23. Elyse said the team chose a lightweight, double-hulled design that held up well even after a melting episode with the hot-glue gun.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Tevlin started the all-girls challenge five years ago, after a year when boys were the only ones to sign up.

While it lasts for just one day, Tevlin said the challenge has led to a significant boost in the number of girls who enroll in MaST – a program for Danforth students who want to focus on math, science, and technology.

“This one little thing has had a huge effect,” Tevlin said, noting that nearly half this year’s 60 MaST students are girls, and a 50/50 split is now in reach.

Besides showing Grade 7 girls what engineering might be like, Tevlin said the girls-only challenge shows teachers how many of their female students may be future engineers.

“It makes them think about giving them just a little extra nudge,” she said.

Nabiha Tahsin is one student who doesn’t need nudging.

“Since I was little, I was always interested in math and science,” said Tahsin, a Grade 10 MaST student who is keen on chemical engineering. “My dad is a chemist, my uncles are engineers, so it kind of runs in my blood.”

Tahsin was among the older students who gave the Grade 7s tips on speedboat design – make the hull smooth for speed, she said, but the key is to make it long enough to balance the heavy motor and battery so the boat tracks straight.

Outside school, Tahsin writes stories for wemadeit.ca, a website for girls interested in science and engineering funded by Hydro One and organized by the Youth Think Tank at Ryerson University.

Already, she has asked several girls her age what they see when they think “engineer.”

“Most said, ‘I picture someone wearing tools, and mostly when I picture it, it’s a man building and doing mechanical work,” she said.

Tahsin knows that image is short-sighted. Within Danforth, there are people like Alyssa Figueira, who medaled in the 2011 Skills Canada contest in her senior year, and did a co-op where she explored Toronto sewers with civil engineers.

Still, it’s easy to see why that image persists.

Although women outnumber men in Canadian universities, and have for more than a decade, according to Statistics Canada they make up just a fifth of those in natural sciences and engineering.

Despite the challenge, Tevlin sounds optimistic that Canada will soon see gender parity in science and engineering – an important goal given how important they both are to society at large.

“It’s the kind of stuff that can help get us out of the messy problems we’re in,” she said.

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