'Amazing experience:' UPEI program gets young women interested in engineering

Grade 12 student Julia Freeburn didn't think she had any interest in a career in engineering - until she spent the summer working on 3D printing projects that included tissue scaffolds in a UPEI program meant to get young women interested in the field of engineering.

Students have spent weeks working on real-world problems in Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering

Julia Freeburn has discovered that she can combine her interest in biology with engineering. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Julia Freeburn loves her high school biology classes, but before this summer, didn't think she had any interest in a career in engineering. 

"I was like oh, engineering, you know it's making trains or making buildings ... I'm not really interested in that," said Freeburn, who will enter grade 12 at Charlottetown Rural High School in September.

Then Freeburn signed up for ProGRES — Promoting Girls in Research Engineering and Sustainability — a program offered through the UPEI ​Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering meant to get young women interested in engineering.

A group of girls going into grades 11 and 12 have spent five weeks at UPEI learning about engineering. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Freeburn said it showed her that biology and engineering can go hand in hand.

She worked on 3D printing projects, including studying tissue scaffolds — something she hopes could eventually help people waiting for organ and tissues transplants. 

"If we could allow tissue scaffolds to help regenerate and regrow damaged tissues, the rate at which we would need to supply transplants wouldn't be so severe," Freeburn said.

Freeburn has been studying 3D printed tissue scaffolds. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Freeburn says the program has opened her eyes to new possibilities.

"I never really knew that you could do engineering and biology as one," she said.

Bridging gaps 

This is the second year UPEI has offered ProGRES.

Associate professor Amy Hsiao started the program in 2017 in an effort to introduce girls to a field they aren't exposed to in high school. 

"You learn about chemistry, biology, physics and math, but you don't know really what engineering is. And so that gap is what we're trying to bridge in this five week program," Hsiao said. 

Amy Hsiao hopes the program will encourage more women to study engineering. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

From building propellers to 3D printing, to finding uses for byproducts of sea lettuce, the students have been working on an array of projects, all looking at real world problems. 

"It's been an amazing experience. I got to learn way more than I ever could have in a traditional classroom," said Ellen O'Rielly, who is going into grade 12 at Colonel Gray High School. 

Hsiao hopes the program will also help solve the persistent problem of women being underrepresented in engineering. 

"We know that diversity, inclusion, all of that only promotes good teamwork, better ideas, just quality experiences," Hsiao said.

Last year's participants 

Hsiao says working with the girls has been a rewarding experience, and she hopes many of them will pursue engineering after high school.

Students worked on a wide variety of projects, including building a propeller. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

And though the program is just in its second year, organizers are already seeing signs of its success. Hsiao says all six of the students who took part in 2017 have decided to study engineering, including some at UPEI. 

"For us, we think that's just pretty awesome."

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With files from Nicole Williams


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