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Fifth grader Natalia Perez-Fiato, 10, wasn’t always a big fan of science. That all changed when she started participating in Girl Lab!, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education-focused club for girls at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, Mass. Beyond participating in simple, yet fun, science experiments, Perez-Fiato said that learning from the club’s founder Meredith Monaco was a big part of what made science exciting for her. Monaco, an engineer who works for aerospace and defense company Raytheon’s Integrated Defense Systems in Andover, Mass., started the program last fall through a grant from her company.
On Thursday, young girls nationwide like Perez-Fiato will explore the possibility of a career in engineering. Through Girl Day, which is part of National Engineers Week, Raytheon is sponsoring 16 events at various Boys and Girls Clubs across the country. As part of this programming, these students will conduct experiments — like using heat from sun’s thermal and radiant heat to heat water — and meet with participating Raytheon volunteers, many of whom are female engineers.
While today marks a specific push for the importance of science education for girls, sustained year-long programs like Monaco’s can potentially have a lasting impact on students who might not necessarily feel inspired to by science in a traditional classroom setting.
‘“I want to be an engineer, now,” Perez-Fiato told FoxNews.com. “I like how we do stuff with Meredith. We do inventions, and learn about how things work – you form your hypothesis. It’s fun.”
Part of what makes programs like this one is that it moves science education out of the classroom and away from textbooks, and makes it hands-on.
Over the course of three six-week sessions, about 10 to 12 young girls meet at the club with Monaco, working on experiments and, perhaps most impactful for the students, get the opportunity to be mentored directly by a woman who works in the engineering field.
Participating in a program like Monaco’s in Lawrence is particularly helpful for young girls considering a profession that at times has marginalized women. In 2010, only 28 percent of workers in the science and engineering labor force were women, even though women numbered about half of total workers with college degrees, according to statistics from the National Science Foundation.
For Monaco, the statistics reveal the need to fill a crucial void in her field.
“I’ve always been passionate about getting more girls interested in engineering,” Monaco said. “A lot of girls don’t realize they like STEM things. With something like our club, we can do fun things, craftier things, get them to look at science in a different way from how they probably see it in school.”
For Monaco, who always had an interest in science, there weren’t necessarily similar programs available to her when she was a child. An active Girl Scout while growing up, Monaco said a lot of activities geared for girls outside the classroom rarely involved science.
Of course, close mentorship is often the gateway for students to become interested in any field. Monaco cited her high school Advanced Placement physics teacher – trained as an electrical engineer – as an individual who particularly inspired her. Monaco would go on to win a National Science Foundation Scholarship, earning a degree in mechanical engineering from Northeastern University. She would also later graduate with an M.B.A. from the same university.
Karen Kravchuk, the director of education at the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, said it is important for young girls to have people like Monaco stand as a positive role model.
“She (Monaco) has gotten kids involved who maybe wouldn’t give science a chance at all,” Kravchuk said. “You have kids like Natalia who discover they really like science, and maybe they will go on and continue to pursue it later on.”
Not every student is reluctant to embrace science. For Willneyshka Rodriguez, 12, science is her favorite subject. Rodgriguez also participates in Monaco’s club and said that the activities she works on through Girl Lab! are the perfect complement to science classes in her school that she said are “really fun.”
“I would love to study science and do more experiments,” Rodriguez told FoxNews.com. “When I was little, I used to watch science shows and mix experiments and see what happens. I always love to try to do things like that.”
What were some of her favorites? Many of them stem from working with Monaco.
“I really like the engineering experiments that we did,” she said. “It’s really fun – the way she explains it to us and treats us like her friend makes engineering fun.”
Monaco said it is crucial that engineering and science appear “fun” for young girls like Rodriguez and Perez-Fiato on not just Girl Day, but every day.
“Even though it’s 2015, there’s still so many people who think of engineering as a ‘guy thing,’ ” Monaco said. “There is no gender assignment to engineering. We need to help encourage more girls that it doesn’t matter that you are female, there are pioneers out there who have paved the way, and you can continue to pave it.”
For young elementary and middle school-aged students, Monaco might seem like a “pioneer,” something that she said can be a little intimidating.
“It’s empowering for these young women to see adults working in the field, doing the things they hope to do. But it’s a little scary for me, too,” Monaco joked. “I didn’t dream of being that big of a deal. I didn’t have that conception when I was growing up. Maybe it would have been more helpful for me to have had something more specific like a female engineer.”