InventHERs Institute Lets Local Underrepresented Girls See Themselves in STEM

3/27/24 Pratt School of Engineering

New outreach program fosters mentorship, encourages authentic communication and creates a safe space to engage in hands-on engineering activities

a folder and bag with InventHERs Institute logo
InventHERs Institute Lets Local Underrepresented Girls See Themselves in STEM

The InventHERs Institute team is bringing STEM education and community engagement to local young girls and their caregivers with a focus on diversity and inclusion. 

Whitney McCoy, a research scientist with Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy, was inspired to create this program while working on her dissertation in educational psychology at North Carolina State University. McCoy studied the experiences of Black girls in a predominantly white summer engineering program. She found that while they enjoyed the program, it didn’t cater to their interests. 

“Culturally, it didn’t seem like it connected to their community,” McCoy said. “I wanted to create what we call a ‘counter-space’ where girls, specifically Black girls, but all girls felt like they could belong and have a safe space to do these hands-on activities.”

Participants in the InventHERs Institute prepare for hands-on activities.

The InventHERs Institute is a program that fosters mentorship, encourages authentic communication and creates a safe space for women and girls from underserved communities to engage in hands-on engineering activities. The program serves local pairs of girls third through fifth grade and their caregivers by offering six Saturday sessions of engineering education and activities specifically catered to the participant’s needs and interests. The program is tied to the undergraduate course Equity in STEM Education (EGR190S/EDUC290S). Duke students in this course serve as mentors to the pairs, help plan and run the Saturday sessions and act as role models to the young students looking to get involved in STEM education.

“Research says that role models are important, and a lot of times, especially at the 5th and 6th grade level, that’s when girls typically start not seeing themselves as scientists and engineers, and so I wanted to target them earlier than that in elementary school,” McCoy said.

McCoy connected with Shaundra Daily, the Cue Family Professor of the Practice in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and they bonded over their shared interest in equity in engineering and computing education. Together, alongside Alia Carter and Sandra Roach, researchers in Daily’s LIFT Lab, they worked on building the idea for the InventHERs Institute. Then they applied for and won a grant from the Lord Foundation through the Pratt School of Engineering to make the InventHERs Institute a reality.

Research says that role models are important, and a lot of times, especially at the 5th and 6th grade level, that’s when girls typically start not seeing themselves as scientists and engineers, and so I wanted to target them earlier than that in elementary school.

Whitney McCoy Research Scientist at the Center for Child and Family Policy

“We’d like to see mothers and daughters develop a STEM identity,” Daily said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they change careers or eventually major in it, but to see themselves as someone who can participate in important cycles of development and innovation.”

Part of the foundation of the program, McCoy said, is that it is tied to an undergraduate course at Duke. McCoy wanted to ensure that the students enrolled in the course feel like they belonged, are supported and mentored, and build their confidence to be able to mentor the participants in the Saturday sessions.

“For the younger students, we’re hoping to see that participating in these activities sparks an interest in STEM education and/or gives them a sense of connection to community and equity that encourages them to take the ideas we discussed with them wherever they land,” Daily said.

A mother and daughter team works on a water filter design as part of the InventHERs Institute.

The first Saturday session was a water filtration activity called “Drink Up,” where the participants were presented with a story about a young girl who goes hiking with her mom and they need to filter water so it is safe to drink. The participants used a variety of materials to create water filtration devices. Duke students used artificial intelligence to create images to go along with the story that looked like the young girls participating in the program.  

The first session also connected the participants with an organization called Outdoor Afro that promotes Black outdoor education and leadership. Participants could see themselves in the problems they were trying to solve with engineering and were connected to local resources in their community.

“It’s wonderful to see the mothers and daughters work together to design solutions to the challenges presented,” Daily said. “You hear things like, ‘I’m not a STEM person,’ but then they jump right in to find solutions together. It’s great to see them support each other and start to see themselves as capable at design, innovation and engineering.”

You hear things like, ‘I’m not a STEM person,’ but then they jump right in to find solutions together.

Shaundra Daily Cue Family Professor of the Practice of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Another session, titled “Functional Fashion,” challenged the girls to create a shoe that was convertible between a comfortable walking and hiking shoe and a dressy shoe.  

“Not only is there a design component, there’s a redesign, which they really got into, because a lot of their shoes failed. So they’re talking about failure and making adaptations while we’re making sure we all authentically value each other’s opinions and that we don’t always come up with the best solution,” McCoy said. “Sometimes our solution might not work, and we might need to come back to the drawing board the next week. And a lot of them did that.”

While the program is primarily aimed at increasing STEM education opportunities for young girls, the mothers and caregivers are also crucial participants. McCoy noticed parents and caregivers wanting to help their children get involved with opportunities like the InventHERs Institute, but not knowing where to begin. 

Duke students used artificial intelligence to create images on the screen in the back to go along with the story that looked like the young girls participating in the program.

“Mothers engineer and design every day,” McCoy said. “They fix our clothes, they fix our backpacks, they solve lots of problems that they don’t always see as engineering. I wanted to bring in caregivers to see that they can also help support their children, even if they themselves are not in a STEM career.”

McCoy hopes that at the conclusion of the program, the young girls and their caregivers feel that they belong in STEM spaces and that they are confident and connected to resources and opportunities all around them. 

“I want the families to feel confident in being able to support their children in this, knowing where to find opportunities, because a lot of times people say, ‘We have access, but while we might have access to something, we’re not participating, because we don’t feel like we belong,’” McCoy said. 

McCoy also hopes that the program can grow to serve more community members in the greater Durham area in the future and be a resource for effective and equitable K-12 STEM and computer science education.