A speaker addresses Derby participants and ComEd mentors. Credit: Peter Rubinstein for Midwest Energy News

As demand grows for skilled workers in the clean energy economy, a recent event in Chicago provides a glimpse of what that future workforce might look like.

Laughter echoed through a Logan Square warehouse-turned-workshop August 10 as the 30 teenage girls participating in ComEd’s fourth annual Icebox Derby program honked for the first time the car horns they wired themselves.

The boxcars and their freezer-door hoods were constructed from scratch out of recycled refrigerators, solar panels and electronics into fully operable, race-ready vehicles, albeit less aerodynamic than anything seen on the road.

Learning to drive would be just one of the skills the 13- to 18-year-old participants would learn during the four-week program designed to inspire and educate young women about jobs in STEM fields.

STEM skills are crucial to clean technology and energy jobs — including in electric vehicles and solar — that are quickly-growing and well-paying sectors of the nation’s economy. Like most high-tech sectors, EV and solar technology jobs are dominated by men.

But companies and advocates hope to change that, in part through efforts like ComEd’s Icebox Derby.

“Our goal in this is to interest these young ladies in STEM and cultivate the interests they already have,” said ComEd spokesperson John Schoen. “We’d love for them to ultimately come back and work for us some day.”

ComEd and the city of Chicago have been leaders in programs for electric vehicles, solar and building energy efficiency, all of which create clean-tech jobs. The city committed to powering all public municipal buildings with renewable energy by 2025, representing about 8 percent of the city’s total power use. The state energy law passed last year is also expected to create thousands of clean energy jobs.

All of this means a greater need for science, technology and engineering expertise.

Gender barriers

Soon, newcomers like ComEd’s 30 “STEM stars” will dip their feet into the fastest-growing market with one of the most rapidly increasing salary standards in the area, Schoen said.

The company’s yearly youth-education program is designed to prepare girls to enter a workforce in great need of people with skills, drive, and, perhaps most importantly, diverse perspectives to shape the future of the industry, Schoen said.

“It’s really an ongoing vision to help women see more STEM opportunities,” he said.

Despite earning over half of all bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences, women receive only 19 percent of engineering degrees, 18 percent of computer science degrees and 39 percent of physical science degrees, according to a National Girls Collaborative Project study released in August 2016.

And women make up only 29 percent of the total U.S. science and engineering workforce, in spite of representing half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, the study revealed.

The stigma of being a “science nerd” is one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome for girls looking to enter the field, said Lisa Albrecht, vice president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association. Such stereotypes deter many youngsters who would otherwise pursue their goals further, she said.

“As a woman, I have found that most of the barriers are my own,” Albrecht said. “Girls hold themselves back.”

That’s why the Icebox Derby program tries to inspire just as much as it tries to teach practical skills, Schoen said. The participants were confronted head-on about such barriers throughout the four days of building and final race-day event as they heard from impassioned speakers and worked with female mentors, all of whom are employed by ComEd.

There is a stark deficiency of female STEM role models, Schoen said. Without popular figures to look up to, many young women abandon the field entirely, taking with them the unique spectrum of perspectives noticeably absent from the STEM market, he said.

“It brings points of view from different communities, the experience of different communities,” Schoen said. “There’s such a disparity in women in STEM.”

Molly Girzadas, a student at St. John Fisher elementary school and member of the program’s Green Galaxy team, dreams of studying biotechnology so she might one day develop new prosthetics for people in need.

“Girls are awesome,” she said as her crew put the finishing touches on their pastel-painted boxcar. “Girls can do anything.”

Jasmine Jackson of the Yellow Spark team said her goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon was born when she witnessed a basketball player fracture his tibia. Helping low-income patients will be a reward unto itself, she said, but the money she’ll earn won’t hurt either.

And reports show that, if young girls interested in STEM and clean energy jobs like Girzadas and Jackson stay the course, they are likely to see the financial outcomes they hope for.

According to a report released in April by the University of Illinois at Chicago, “Sizing Up Our Region’s Green Economy,” clean economy jobs indeed pay higher wages than others, both regionally and nationally.

Race day

Whooping cheers and team-name chants from friends and families rang out across Chicago’s Daley Plaza August 12 as the six Derby teams’ fridge-mobiles careened around the track. Crews made a pit stop after each lap to swap drivers and complete rapid “STEM challenges” at their workbenches, testing the girls’ problem-solving abilities in math and engineering tasks.

By early evening, the winning team was tallied and recognized. To the surprise of participants and parents alike, however, all 30 STEM stars were awarded the grand prize: a 13-inch laptop and $2,500 scholarship.

Advocates say companies and public agencies should both create similar programs to inspire a diverse STEM workforce for the future.

“Anything the government can do to inspire more women to enter the field is money well spent,” Albrecht said. “Technology needs everyone.”

Peter Rubinstein is a journalist pursuing his master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He was the 2017 Illinois News Fellow with the National Newspaper Association Foundation, and appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary. For three years, he was managing editor of online music publication Your EDM.