Gaby Rochino knew she wasn't the only Rowan University student struggling to get through a particularly difficult engineering class - "I'd study nine hours a night and I'd still get a C on a quiz" - but she still felt alone.
"Imagine sitting in a classroom, and nobody in your classroom looks like you. Rowan itself is very un-diverse, so mostly everyone around me was a Caucasian male," said Rochino, 21, of Cherry Hill.
"It's just devastating looking around the room, thinking, 'Maybe I'm not cut out for this, maybe I'm not made for this, maybe girls can't do engineering,' " she said.
But that goes against everything Rochino believes and everything she's been taught by her family and seen in her years at Rowan.
So Rochino used an entrepreneurship and innovation class project to develop a way to encourage future female engineers. It won the elevator pitch competition in Rowan's business school
Her project, a series of "Think Like a Girl" engineering activities kits for girls age 6 through 12, also netted $5,000 in seed money from the Rowan Innovation Venture Fund that she and two cofounders can use to continue developing the kits via a student-run engineering clinic.
Each themed kit has a core engineering activity that uses common household items. For instance, a prototype structural engineering kit themed around Paris uses gumdrops and toothpicks.
A "Real Woman Engineer Trading Card" in each box helps give girls role models, as does fictional Gaby Gadget, the girls' guide through the box.
Other pieces include a design project, meant to encourage creative and artistic thinking, and a sustainability fact card to promote awareness of environmental impact.
"Every single component you see here, there's a reason as to why it's here, trying to combat one of the issues why girls don't go into engineering, or how they learn best," said Lexi Basantis, 20, of Medford Lakes, a junior mechanical engineering student and cofounder.
Tony Lowman, dean of the engineering school, said gender disparity is a challenge at schools and companies across the nation.
"We're not attracting the women, and we're trying hard," he said. "And it's stories like this that are what's going to do it: these are highly successful women who are highly entrepreneurial, they're intelligent, they're outstanding engineers, they're a shining example."
Last semester, Rochino led two other mechanical engineers, two civil engineers, and a chemical engineer to flesh out two dozen kits, which they hope to sell sometime next year.
The engineering clinic has a few more students this semester, and the Think Like A Girl team is looking to add students from other fields as consultants.
Ultimately, the cofounders hope to launch a start-up, with help from competitions and money from a crowdfunding campaign. The kits will roll out as a subscription service, with boxes shipped out each month.
Each kit addresses specific reasons - backed by academic research - that girls turn away from engineering and science.
"Some of the main reasons why girls don't go into engineering are misconceptions of what it is to be an engineer and lack of female role models," said Megan DeGeorge, 22, of East Greenwich, another mechanical engineering student who is a senior and Think Like A Girl cofounder.
Existing products, including construction toys meant to be gender-neutral or even aimed at girls, don't meet those needs, DeGeorge said, citing market research.
"There's nothing that relates to those things. So yeah, you can make little pink and purple toys that snap together that girls will like to play with," she said, "but if there's not storytelling, role-playing along with it, there's not a connection to the real engineering, and there's not a woman role model, then it doesn't matter."
After Rochino talked about feeling alone in her engineering class, DeGeorge talked about another challenge: What happens when you succeed.
"When you finally have a break and you get offered an amazing job or an internship, you get that taken away, because people tell you it's only because you're a woman," DeGeorge said. "So you can't do it, because you're a woman, and when you can do it, it's only because you're a woman."
Basantis jumped in, quoting classmates: " 'You're the diversity hire.' "
Rochino, who calls those students "some jerks," also draws inspiration from a network of mentors drawn from the faculty at Rowan and industry partners.
Internships at Dassault Systemes SolidWorks connected Rochino with Marie Planchard, the company's director of education portfolio and a Rutgers-New Brunswick engineering alumna.
Planchard encouraged the Think Like A Girl team to avoid pink and purple colors on their kits, leading them to teal and orange instead.
When Planchard graduated from Rutgers with her mechanical engineering degree in 1983, she said, there was a push to get more women in engineering. But today, women make up just 14 percent of engineers in the United States, according to a 2012 report by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.
"If we don't get 50 percent of our population to be interested in solving problems, we're going to be in real trouble as a society. And that ability, to solve problems and to think about solving problems, starts when you're very young," Planchard said.
"I'm just hoping the next generation, like Gaby and Think Like A Girl, has figured this out, because it is going to take another generation to get this to happen."