Making a Mark

Middle and high school students engage with STEM through remote TARGET summer program 

The Academy at Rutgers for Girls in Engineering and Technology, or TARGET, has long been a popular summer program for middle and high school students eager to learn about careers in engineering through a variety of workshops, hands-on activities, labs, and projects. 

While this summer’s six-week on-campus TARGET summer program was officially canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, a three-week abridged virtual experience was offered to student applicants in grades 6-11. “We wanted to still keep students engaged with STEM,” says Candiece White, undergraduate education/student services assistant dean, who worked with program development specialist and department colleague Aisha Ciafullo to transition the program to a remote format.

According to Ciafullo, who ran the day-to-day management of the program, 76 girls aged 11 to 17 took part in TARGET from Monday to Thursday for three weeks. “This is a virtual experience for all of the students to collectively discuss STEM, engage in activities utilizing the engineering design process, encourage one another in their pursuits and passions, and share their diverse experiences,” she says. The summer program culminated in a virtual “event” that recognized the students for their participation and summarized the skills they would be taking away from their experience.

For Ciafullo, the greatest challenge in shifting to a shortened virtual program was determining the most effective and practical way to engage the students in multiple fields of engineering. 

One way of meeting this challenge was to connect students remotely not only with peers who share their interests, but also with academic and industry professionals. “We were so grateful to have some of our very own SoE alumnae – a few also being former TARGET participants – serve as role models by sharing their experiences with their various industry positions from packaging engineering to chemical engineering,” Ciafullo says. 

By all accounts, TARGET met its goals.  “Our biggest success has honestly been the fact that we’ve had such talented, interactive participants who engaged with the content and at-home activities during the program,” Ciafullo says. “I can’t emphasize enough how much we have learned from these students. These girls are amazing!”

She adds, “Our team of five School of Engineering student counselors, who serve as mentors for participants, did a phenomenal job of selecting activities using items found at home, but that still drove home the engineering design process.” 

White notes, “The heartbeat of the program is the counselors we hire. They were onboard with us when we decided to do an abridged program and spearheaded a lot of what we offered.”

As a high school student, rising sophomore and chemical engineering major Anusri Arora took part in TARGET for two years, where she enjoyed an immersive STEM experience. “From TARGET, I learned about the incredible camaraderie and opportunities that Rutgers offers, and was eager to continue on that path as a student.” 

As a counselor this summer, Arora conquered the difficulties of breaking the ice in a digital environment. “I was quickly taken with how friendly and supportive the staff were, as well as how engaged and confident the students were,” she recalls. “The way we structured the program to still include engaging presentations and home-friendly activities surely created an environment that promoted a great deal of learning – and facilitated those important discussions we want these future women in STEM to begin to have.”

Arora’s fellow TARGET counselor Swarnima Roychowdhury’s experience as a TARGET student also encouraged her to enroll in the School of Engineering. “It definitely influenced my decision to choose the School and helped me see that it would be a good fit for me,” she says. 

For biomedical engineering major Roychowdhury, being a counselor was more than a summer job. “I loved giving back to the TARGET program this summer, as it has done so much for me,” she reports. “It was rewarding to see so many bright and motivated young women who were excited to go into STEM and who have been saying they learned a lot and enjoyed the projects. This relates to my own experience, as TARGET had helped me see what engineering truly is.” 

TARGET will be reopening its application process in late January 2021. For questions or additional details about the program, please visit https://soe.rutgers.edu/target or contact Aisha Ciafullo, TARGET Program Coordinator, at aisha.ciafullo@soe.rutgers.edu .