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by André Voshart 

About 200 girls in Grades 7 to 10, along with 130 parents, explored the field of engineering with hands-on workshops and talks from women in the profession at the Go ENG Girl! conference hosted by Ryerson, York University and the University of Toronto last weekend.

In Ontario, female enrolment in engineering programs dropped last year to 17 per cent from 20 per cent the previous year. Those figures prompted the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers to create Go ENG Girl! to attract girls to the profession. They brought 13 conferences to life and 1,700 attendees together across Ontario.

“Wow, this is amazing,” keynote speaker Molly Shoichet said, reacting to the size of the audience in the filled conference room at 89 Chestnut Hotel residence. Shoichet discussed her work in tissue regeneration and spinal cord injury, explaining how creativity and engineering are interconnected and how new and innovative treatments need to be developed by creative minds.

The girls were divided into two workshops. Grade 7 and 8 girls did environment engineering and Grade 9 and 10 girls practiced biomedical engineering.

Sandra Solomon, a parent, said the event was a great chance for her daughter, who just started high school and has an interest in science, to start thinking about her future.

“When I saw this, I thought, ‘perfect,'” she said. “I hope she (will have) a better idea of some of the opportunities available to her.”

In 2004, enrolment for women in Ryerson’s engineering programs was at 16 per cent. Associate dean of engineering and applied sciences Zouheir Fawaz said “that is very inadequate representation. We are missing out on a significant per cent of the population.”

Lisa Anderson, co-ordinator of Ryerson’s Women in Engineering, a group dedicated to issues facing women in engineering, said overcoming stereotypes is a problem and some women are encouraged to look elsewhere.

“Unfortunately, guidance counsellors tend to guide (girls) away from engineering,” she said.

Careers in medicine and law used to be male-dominated, Anderson said, but they have slowly begun to equalize since the 1970s. She hopes Go ENG Girl! can break down similar barriers in engineering.

Anderson added that enrolment rates of men in engineering programs are also dropping — just not as quickly as women’s. She partly blames Ontario’s new curriculum and its “killer math course” for turning all genders away from anything math-related.

In the Grade 9 and 10 workshop, 16-year-old Jaclyn Cohen was in a group of eight girls building a hydraulic hand with syringes and popsicles sticks.

“I’m here because … I want to know more about what I want to do with my life. What I need to get there,” she said. “Plus, I’m here because my father sent me.”

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