A team of current and former Duke students tackled the gender gap in engineering at the Global Grand Challenges Summit in Beijing last month.

The summit, which was organized by the National Academy of Engineering and held in September, included a competition to address Grand Challenges in engineering. Duke's team placed third in the summit's student startup pitch competition and won a $5,000 prize for their organization Girls Engineering Change, which educates middle school and high school girls about engineering through hands-on projects with student mentors. 

The group—composed of Melina Smith, Pratt '15; Christine Schindler, Pratt '15; Bianca Bracht, Pratt '15; senior Grant Petersen; Dutch Waanders, Pratt '15; and Karmyn McKnight, Pratt '15—also participated in the conference accompanying the competition, which focused on 14 grand challenges identified by National Academy of Engineering as pressing global issues.

“It was a really powerful experience getting to network with a number of university students from all around the world, as well as to listen to presentations by leaders in this academic and professional space that care and are addressing significant challenges that our world faces,” said Waanders.

Smith, the leader of the team, explained that their presentation at the summit focused on how Girls Engineering Change addresses the Grand Challenges by giving girls the tools to confront these problems. 

The organization also seeks to close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, she said. Their curriculum allows girls to build products such as medical equipment testers, clean-burning cook stoves and water filters, which can be used in developing nations. The program began at Duke but has since expanded to more than 300 girls at four different universities.

“We have been working on a nonprofit for a few years that relates to the Grand Challenges in a non-traditional way,” said Smith.

She noted that they were initially nervous about their presentation because most of the other groups focused on a specific technology that addressed one of the Grand Challenges and the team was unsure of how their project would compare. She explained, however, that their fears were soon lessened.

“All day the judges had been really tough on everyone…but when we finished, the judge in the middle leaned forward and said, ‘I have two daughters at home, and thank you so much for doing this,’” Smith said.

In addition to enjoying the third-place finish, Waanders noted that the team also appreciated the main conference, which was attended mostly by professionals and students from the United Kingdom, the United States and China.

He added that a talk on the social aspects of health care and the length of hospital stays based on social interactions especially intrigued him. 

“We got to listen to really impressive speeches about a number of topics and understand how many other young people also care about these issues, and how they are tackling them,” he said. 

Climate change was one of the most talked about issues at the summit, Smith said. She noted that she was grateful for the opportunity to attend the conference and was satisfied with the experience. 

“What was cool about the summit was that you could meet and be inspired by your peers,” she said.