Introducing Girls (and Boys) to Engineering through Ewy Rosqvist’s Journey

Contributed by Suzanne Sontgerath

In 1962, Ewy Rosqvist won the Argentinian Grand Prix.  The first woman to do so.  Twenty-five years later, as a senior mechanical engineering student, a corporate recruiter asked me “If your car broke down, would you look under the hood yourself to fix it or call a mechanic?”  At the time, I was taken back, because I had never worked on a car in Two girls sitting at a table. One girl is trying to move a matchbox car by blowing through a straw while the other girl watchesmy life. I answered “Of course, I would take it to a mechanic.”  I didn’t get the job.  That moment has stayed with me as I reflect on it often. I now realize that it was a question that was specifically asked because of my gender and was probably never asked of my male counterparts.  Unfortunately, thirty years later in 2020, we are still facing stereotypes about what constitutes a male activity, toy, or career.  Girls are still often given dolls and “pretty things” to play with and encouraged to become teachers and nurses.  Boys are given Legos, Matchbox cars and video games which build their spatial skills to set them on a path towards science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.  That is why, as the director of Pre-collegiate Outreach programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), I was so excited for WPI to participate in the NO LIMITS, Ewy Rosqvist Mercedes-Benz 220SE, Matchbox Replica program in partnership with Mercedes-Benz, Mattel and the National Girls Collaborative. 

On February 17 and 18, 2020, WPI hosted our traditional National Engineers’ Week Celebrations-Engineers on The Go and Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day programs.  Each half-day program exposes 70 third, fourth, and fifth grade students to engaging hands-on engineering activities designed to spark their interest in engineering and help them to understand what it is engineers do. Along the way, we provide them with many undergraduate student role models who share their paths into STEM.  The workshops are fun and relevant to the everyday lives of an elementary school student.  They ranged from building scribble bots and looking at the biomedical engineering behind drug delivery to rocket design and our special workshop using the matchbox cars.  As part of the “NO LIMITS” campaign, we created a workshop dedicated to Ewy Rosqvist and her iconic win of the Argentinian Grand Prix.   In the session,Two girls at a table. One girl is holding a straw. The other is holding a pink magnet over a matchbox car which was led by our undergraduate students, the students intently watched Ewy’s video and had discussions about the stereotypes around toys like Matchbox cars.  We were especially interested to lead this discussion in a mixed group of boys and girls.  Although there were some stereotypical reactions such as one girl asking “Why she would do something so dangerous?” and one boy answering “To get a bunch of money and destroy everyone!”, we were pleasantly surprised to see that ALL the children felt there should be no limits on what boys and girls can do.  One favorite observation of ours was a very spontaneous reaction from one of the girls sitting amongst a group of boys.  After the video, she exclaimed “yes”, stood up and did a fist pump.  When asked about her reaction, she said “I am just so excited to see girls doing something cool and that it’s not all about the boys.”  A profound response from a fourth grader who has already experienced differing attitudes towards boys and girls at a young age.  After the video, students designed a way to make their die-cast Matchbox replica of the Mercedes-Benz 220SE move without touching it.  Designs included using different materials to power the car, such as a balloon, magnetic power, or a sail.  Adding the alternative energy aspect to the activity helped the students understand how engineers can make a difference in the world.  This is particularly important for girls, since research indicates that women are more attracted to careers in which they can see the potential to help others and make the world a better place.  Every student who participated in the program went home with their own Ewy Rosqvist commemorative car.  We hope that when the students see their matchbox car, they remember that all children should have NO LIMITS to what they can accomplish.

If there had been programs like this one and initiatives like the one from Mercedez Benz and Mattel when I was in third grade, the numbers of women in engineering would likely be significantly higher today.  At WPI, we recognize that not every young woman that we interact with will go on to be a scientist or engineer. But if we can build self-efficacy and confidence in their ability to do so if they choose through wonderful programs like NO LIMITS, then we have accomplished our goal.  Thank you to Mercedez Benz, Mattel and the National Girls Collaborative Project for sponsoring this program. 

Suzanne Sontgerath is the Director of Pre-Collegiate Outreach Programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She is a WPI alumna with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering and also holds a Master of Education degree from  Worcester State University. Sue is very proud of the commitment WPI has made not only to a superb education for our current students, but also to educating younger K-12 students about the exciting opportunities in available in science and engineering. In her spare time, she loves reading, hiking (especially in the awesome New England fall) or spending time on the Cape with her family.

NGCP's partnership with Mercedes-Benz USA is tackling the issue of gender stereotypes and showing young girls they can aspire to be and do anything they desire. #GirlsHaveNoLimits. Via NGCP mini-grants, thousands of girls have been gifted a die-cast Matchbox replica of the Mercedes-Benz 220SE commemorating Ewy Rosqvist's historic 1962 Argentinian Grand Prix performance. Learn more about this initiative.