Do you remember the 2nd grade exercise where you had to solve 100 multiplication problems in less than a minute? I can remember eagerly waiting to tackle the next set of equations, preparing to the point where I would sharpen several pencils and clean everything off my desk, even though I knew that the activity would only last for one minute. But I had to be ready because receiving that single white and black sheet of paper had become the highlight of my day.

As a logical thinker, math and science are two subjects in which I have always excelled, but I chuckled when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t laugh because I thought the question was funny; I laughed because I was too afraid to say that I didn’t know. What could I be? What were my options? Despite my academic abilities, questions like these seemed mind-boggling.

I was lucky enough to be exposed to math and technology at a very young age. Since middle school, I’ve participated in very selective programs for scholars and sought out opportunities to advance my learning in those fields. However, women currently make up only 25 percent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce, according to findings from the U.S. Census Bureau. So where did I fit in?   

I became determined to follow a STEM career path based on my exposure to the clubs, tools and resources that had been offered to me. Exposure is an important factor that determines whether or not girls become interested in STEM subjects. How would someone ever know if she is interested in engineering or coding if she didn’t even know what it was? In addition, basic fear and a lack of encouragement often prevent girls from pursuing their interests in STEM. We live in a society where double standards and stereotypes can sometimes override interest and potential, making many girls shy away from working in technical fields where they feel outnumbered or unsupported.

Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate to have encountered a company that wants to change that. Last summer, I was selected as one of only 30 participants for ComEd’s second annual Icebox Derby. The Icebox Derby is an educational initiative that is designed to empower young women to explore opportunities in STEM and help them discover their own paths to innovation – by building an electric and solar powered race car.

What do you think it takes to build a race car? I bet that a refrigerator isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. If you’re competing in the Icebox Derby, with building an inventive and eco-friendly vehicle as your goal, a recycled refrigerator is your most important tool. Over the course of the summer, my team focused on every aspect of building the car, from the tires, to the battery, to the paint job. The Icebox Derby helped us hone our technical skills, but it also inspired us to use our creative side in coming up with team names and unique designs for our car.

One of my favorite parts of the Icebox Derby experience was working with our team mentors—all female employees from ComEd who dedicated their time and guidance to the program and the Derby teams, and showed us a glimpse of what our futures could hold. I am so grateful for the Icebox Derby program because it gave me a chance to do what I love, and introduced me to other young women with many of the same passions and interests. The Derby gave me a positive environment where I felt free to dive into my passion for STEM without wondering where I fit. The confidence I found exploring my interests through Icebox Derby encouraged me to keep building on my STEM aspirations, even after we crossed the finish line on Race Day.

Fast forward one year, and I am now an intern at ComEd and about to start my sophomore year at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign where I study civil engineering. . As an aspiring engineer, I love engaging in hands-on projects. One of my biggest dreams is to be able to build my own home one day. Critical problem solving and creativity drive me, and my desire to create something that can dramatically advance society is what makes me love engineering. I want to be able to help people in ways they never imagined, by making their lives more comfortable and convenient through technology.

During my summer internship at ComEd, I’ve been working in the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) Deployment Department, where our main focus is to install smart meters to all customers by 2019. I have learned so many things in the past 10 weeks, worked with a team of amazing people, and I could not imagine spending my summer doing anything better – even multiplication problems! I have a couple more summers before I graduate, and I plan to spend them furthering my knowledge in the engineering world and preparing for my future in STEM.

Chequita Grant  is a rising sophomore at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign, where she studies Civil Engineering with a primary in construction management and a secondary in structures.

Chequita Grant  is a rising sophomore at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign, where she studies Civil Engineering with a primary in construction management and a secondary in structures.