Tonya Chipley, an engineer at Ameritech, recalls her education at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago:
"Nine times out of 10, I (was) the only female in a class of 200 or 300. I felt that sometimes the teachers didn't expect me to do well because I was a female."
Chipley received her degree in electrical engineering, but she's trying to change things so that girls interested in engineering won't feel as lonely as she did.
Chipley is a facilitator for the Minority Engineering Program of Indianapolis, a program that exposes minorities to math and science experiences. She and Sikita Grayson, another Ameritech engineer and facilitator for MEPI, recently talked to Children's Express.
"What we do is we take minority students with an interest in math and science and in the engineering fields and expose them to those fields," Grayson said. "We expose them to some of the basics of problem- solving, presentational skills, team building, things that are critical to making it as an engineer in the work force."
Students can start in MEPI in sixth grade and continue through 12th grade. While the program accepts both boys and girls, Chipley and Grayson hope to inspire girls to join.
"We want to encourage the girls because engineering is thought of as just for guys," Chipley explained. "We want to break that stereotype and encourage young women to pursue that career."
Lauren DeFrantz, an eighth-grader at Parkman Middle School, and Brieka Hampton, a freshman at Bishop Chatard High School, joined MEPI to learn more about math and science.
"(My parents) try to get me in as many programs as I can that (deal) with science and math. . . . They try to get me exposure to it early so it would be easier as I got older," Lauren told Children's Express.
"There's so many different types of maths and sciences. . . . You just never stop learning," she added.
Students meet once a month to work on MEPI projects. This year, the eighth-grade students in the Ameritech program are building devices, such as cars, with Lego building blocks, which are hooked up to a computer. They then write computer programs to allow the device to move.
"It allows you to have hands-on experience," Lauren said. "We've had to build robots. Right now, we've had to build a computer program. In seventh grade, we made cars and clocks and things like that."
Both Brieka and Lauren plan on becoming physicians, but they feel their MEPI experience is preparing them for those fields.
"It's challenging. You always learn something different," Lauren said.
Chipley and Grayson were inspired by teachers to pursue the sciences. Brieka and Lauren received similar advice.
"My teachers did encourage me to be active in school programs and academics as well as out-of-school programs," Brieka said. "That helped to influence my goals."
Both Brieka and Lauren said they hadn't experienced much sexism in their math and science classes. "I feel that racism is worse than sexism," Lauren commented.
But Chipley encountered sexism.
"People have this perception that women aren't able to do as well as men. (You are) always having to prove yourself, always having to do things better," she said. "You're always asked to make sure you know what you're talking about because you are a woman."
While math and the sciences have traditionally been dominated by men, times are slowly changing. "There's a tremendous opportunity for women," Grayson noted.
"Companies are looking for more and more women mainly because women have been left out in the past in those types of fields," Chipley added. "They are trying to correct that by hiring more educated, experienced women."
All of our interviewees felt the same - that you have to be willing to do the work to be what you want to be. Grayson emphasized that females can make a special contribution.
"In any field, you need diversity. People bring different things to the table. A woman would look at maybe a product differently than a male would. A black person might look at a product differently than a white person, so to have a diverse work force is critical."
EDITED BY: Amber Hall, 15.