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Reboot of engineering day for girls in Santa Rosa seeks to propel next generation

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Michellene Ruiz and Faith Ndegwa have their sights set on achieving greatness. They enroll in advanced classes each summer, and during the school year are involved with clubs at their school, Roseland Collegiate Prep, that emphasize leadership and good study habits.

So it was no surprise to their parents when they chose to spend Saturday — a precious day off in their packed weekly schedule — at an engineering event for young women.

Ruiz and Ndegwa, both 15, were among about 120 students attending the Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day hosted by Keysight Technologies in Santa Rosa.

The event was started about 15 years ago with the goal of inspiring girls and nurturing their interest in math and science, said Julie Silk, a veteran Keysight chemical engineer and one of the event founders.

“Although it is not as bad as it was when I first started, we still have a low percentage of female engineers,” said Silk. “This event gives girls a chance to see and experience engineering and learn that it is much more hands-on and creative than they might think.”

Girls in grades 6-12 came from throughout Sonoma County and as far away as Los Angeles for the program, held at Keysight’s Fountaingrove campus.

Saturday marked the event’s reintroduction since the Tubbs fire in 2017 damaged part of the campus, the headquarters for Sonoma County’s largest tech company.

The relaunch was an important step, Silk said.

“There have been a handful of girls that have come to this event and years later come back as a volunteer because they ended up becoming engineers themselves,” she said.

The students on Saturday collaborated to assemble devices that would simulate a rover landing on Mars. They spent three hours working with coaches and using materials such as aluminum foil, Popsicle sticks and paper. Then teams tested their products in front of a panel of judges, all of them engineers.

Saratoga High student Shauna Zahabi, 15, enjoyed working with female classmates to fine-tune their project, ensuring it performed in front of the panel.

“There are truly not enough women in this field, and attending this event is something women not that long ago would not have been able to do,” said Zahabi.

That feeling of empowerment was echoed by others.

Aiyana Hoaglin, 13, said women in her family have urged her to embrace the wide open job field that was not available to them.

She discovered the event through a teacher at Roseland Collegiate Prep who mentors girls who have an interest in math and science.

“I like trying different things and it’s important to just say yes to things like this in order to see if we want to make a future out of it,” Hoaglin said. “We are learning now that girls can do anything that guys can do.”

For Ndegwa, the daughter of a Kenyan mother who immigrated to California to become a doctor, the event proved another motivating experience in her young life.

Like her mother, she said she hopes to push the boundaries of what she can accomplish in her career.

“We still have a long way to go as far as being inclusive, but it is always great to be surrounded by serious women doing great things like this,” Ndegwa said. “My mom raised me and my sister to never settle for our dreams.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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