Caroline Van Tiggelen champions girls in engineering, creates STEM 4 Kids outreach program

It’s a challenge sometimes experienced in the early years of engineering: students struggle in advanced math classes and question whether the field is for them. Female students may have additional struggles with fewer female role models in a traditionally male field.

Mechanical engineering student Caroline (Kair-o-leen) Van Tiggelen is on a mission to change that reality.

Caroline Van Tiggelen
Caroline Van Tiggelen

Originally from Belgium and a nontraditional transfer student from Front Range Community College, Caroline had to overcome obstacles both in her coursework as well as representation to get her where she is today.

She began taking prerequisites at community college, with the plan to transfer to a university to finish her coursework. But as she progressed in the program, classes got harder and she struggled to find her place among peers.

“I recently learned that only 16 percent of mechanical engineers are female. No wonder we don’t feel like we belong – we are immensely underrepresented. I’m often the only female on the team,” Caroline said. “During a moment of discouragement and intense doubt of my abilities, I dropped out.”

Caroline left engineering and began a career in wellness, but it never satisfied her desire to put her creativity to use in a way that she knew could change lives. Reflection and support from her family gave her the push she needed to make her way to CSU.

“The stars aligned when I made that decision because, little did I know, I was making my way toward a field of opportunity as a student in mechanical engineering, to work in the teaching labs, find my passion for manufacturing, and start STEM 4 Kids.”

Caroline credits the mechanical engineering machine shop for developing her confidence – the place where she discovered that she can be an engineer and that she does belong.

STEM 4 Kids

Caroline couldn’t stop thinking about the girls who drop out of engineering and never return, or the ones that could have been introduced to STEM early on but weren’t. She decided to leverage her position as President of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers chapter at CSU to create an outreach arm, STEM 4 Kids.

STEM 4 Kids is an inclusive after-school program for girls designed to help inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. Girls are provided a safe space where they participate in hands on engineering- and science-based projects to develop their problem-solving skills. The goal of the program is to introduce young girls to STEM and help them develop confidence and a feeling of acceptance around their peers. They want to show the girls that they’re welcome in science, engineering, and technology.

Photo collage of girls building toothpick and marshmallow structures at a STEM 4 Kids event
Girls participate in the toothpick and marshmallow building competition at the first STEM 4 Kids event

STEM 4 Kids has grown into an independent student organization. Their events take place every other Thursday throughout the academic year. Snacks are provided along with all the tools and materials necessary to participate. And to keep with its inclusive mission, admission is free.

“Doing this kind of outreach is not just a good thing to do, but the right thing to do. If you are successful, represent a minority group, are of sound mind and able body, then you have the moral responsibility to step up and make a change in some way,” Caroline said. “The gender disparity in engineering is atrocious. We must act now to inspire the younger generation. It’s up to us female engineers and scientists to be role models for the girls who don’t have any.”

“Doing this kind of outreach is not just a good thing to do, but the right thing to do. If you are successful, represent a minority group, are of sound mind and able body, then you have the moral responsibility to step up and make a change in some way.”

Targeted outreach efforts have garnered Caroline early success, with an average of 30 participants per event and a growing network of contacts at nearby school districts.

She will put her skills to use for the department as well, lending her expertise to lead middle and high school outreach efforts for summer mechanical engineering camps.

About the Department of Mechanical Engineering transfer agreements

Colorado State University and the Colorado Community College System recently partnered on an Associate in Engineering Science degree that streamlines the transfer process for students who wish to complete their first two years of coursework at a community college and seamlessly transfer into the CSU mechanical engineering degree program. The agreement gives students a structured, no-surprises pathway leading from an associate degree into a bachelor’s degree program in the same discipline.