Advancing the Image of Engineering One Audience at a Time

This weekend, over 400 teachers – from primary grades to high school – attended the 34th Annual Conference of the Greater San Diego Mathematics Council (GSDMC). I had the opportunity to connect with 30 teachers who stepped in to listen to my session: “Learn How to Promote STEM to Girls”.

Math teachers have always inspired me.  They are a key pathway to many girls for introducing them to Engineering. This was my opportunity to assess just how much of the research the teachers knew on the factors that influence whether a girl enters STEM or not and to get their feedback.

The STEM research on women was new to a majority of the teachers. Fewer than 20% had heard about the impact of outdated stereotypes on test scores and in girls self-assessments, implicit biases, or on the need to develop spatial visualization skills. The best known research was on Growth Mindset – related to how we give praise – with 30% of the teachers having heard it before. The updated engineering messaging was new to virtually everyone.

The teachers were aware at just how well high school girl have been doing – girls have been out performing boys in overall math and science GPA and credit hours for over twenty years. But they were definitely surprised to hear that fewer than 5% of the over 1,000 parents I have presented the research to knew this fact. In the end, they appreciated the need to send the message that “both boys and girls are performing equally well in math and science” to both their students AND to the parents.     

Recommendations from the educators:

  • “Have film producers generate a movie or TV show of brilliant women engineers unravelling design failures.” 
  • Expand the session next year into a whole strand: provide the research and then integrate it with teachers providing concrete class room examples.
  • More people need to hear the research: present it to more educators, school administrations, my entire department, high school students, college students, struggling students, girl scout troop leaders.

Coffee Table Conversations

Inspired by the People you meet at Conference? Write about your experiences in the SWE Magazine.

The SWE Magazine is looking for 8 individuals – 4 Collegiate & 4 Working Professionals – to be paired up to meet other aspiring, enthusiastic engineers like yourself who are willing to have a quick “Coffee Table Conversation” at the #WE12 National Conference in Houston Texas about school, career, and life.  Afterwards, all you need to do is write up your experiences and have it published in the SWE Magazine.  Here is more information on the expectations and needs.

To sign up for your writing assignment, contact I will be at the Ice Cream Social, 8pm, Wednesday November 7th to finalize the contacts and to get you started on your assignment.

Ever had to face a workplace issue you didn’t know how to handle?  The Organizational Ombudsman (OO) may be just the resource you need(ed).

Next week I will introduce the legal expert in the field of OO, Charles Howard, during the SWE 2012 National Conference session “Building A Better Workplace Through the Organizational Ombuds”.  If you will be in Houston Texas, I encourage you to come learn what an OO is, how they help, and where they fit in your company. Everyone deserves an expert who can coach them in a confidential and neutral manner to help navigate those tough workplace hurdles. The one hour session will be  Thursday, November 8, 2012, 10am.  Here are the presentation materials. To help us prepare, provide us with some of your toughest workplace issues you have faced by Taking this anonymous survey – results will be presented during the conference.

EYH Feedback

Sixty people were in attendance at my keynote address for the parents program at the tenth annual Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) conference held on USD campus – which is more than the forty parents who registered. Here are some comments from the program:

“I need to incorporate spatial skills training” – Hearing about the work of Mechanical Engineering Professor Sheryl Sorby in how female students often had a gap in their basic spatial skills training prompted an ah-ha moment for one middle school educator. Many of her students were having a difficult time visualizing the structure of DNA molecules. She realized this was likely due to their lack of spatial skills awareness. Her plan now is to incorporate spatial skills training to make the assignments easier to comprehend for all students.

“What about Alice?” – One parent commented on female engineering role models in the media, namely the Alice character in Dilbert. While Alice and her trailblazing “fist of death” shows a woman willing to literally plough through obstacles at work, the main point of bringing up Dilbert in the first place was to showcase the characterizations of engineering as an anti-social, dysfunctional, stereotypical nerdy engineer atmosphere. While the equity in including a female engineer in a cartoon is notable – I don’t think anyone would consider entering a STEM career based on Dilbert or Alice as role models. Thank goodness for organizations like EYH and SWE for showcasing venues to allow the girls to be paired up with the real life role models. That is the only way to dispell the nerdy myth.

“My daughter is a fighter” – After the event, one parent came up to me to introduce her daughter, Destiny, noting with a twinkle in her eye that ‘she was a fighter’. It was a strong commitment that she as a parent was not daunted by the research presented and believed her daughter would be successful in STEM. I asked Destiny – who was still charged from a day full of hands on activities from the EYH program – to bolster her chances in fighting well by taking debate. Debate is an excellent means to strengthen ones verbal skills and ability to present a convincing argument. If one is going to promote a project, defend a design, and negotiate in this world, one needs the ability to present a strong case for yourself or your team.

“Should I encourage my daughter into STEM knowing she definitely wants to start a family?” – Hearing the workplace research about why women leave engineering can be difficult to present to a parent audience.  Many STEM careers require working long hours, some work environments are not as supportive as they could be. However, I would say that our American corporate culture is the one with the issue of not being family friendly. We as a nation need to do more to help women and men better balance work and family.

“All this effort to get girls into STEM is for naught unless there are special provisions for girls in college admissions to allow the increase in numbers”.  I disagree. To reframe, the research shows that schools like Carnegie Mellon have been exceptionally effective in changing the percentages of women in their computer science department from 7% to 40% within a few short years simply by making minor changes to the departmental culture and policies.  These incremental changes simply removed the barriers, stopped catering to one specific subgroup, and built up an inclusive environment. These incremental changes while good for the women proved equally good for men: retention numbers increased to nearly 100% for both genders.

“Two of the best engineers in my group are women. They bring an ability to think outside of the box”. This comment from a male parent is just one aspect of the value of diversity that helps corporations stay competitive.

Want Your Daughter to be an Engineer? Better Watch What You Say!

“Girls do as well as or better than boys in high school math and science and many of them are well prepared and hard working but would not consider a STEM career. Why? Maybe they are getting the wrong messages. Possibly even from you! Come learn from the latest research on why there are so few women in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (or STEM) and see what you as parent, educator, and employer can do. Come learn how early career choices are made, the threats girls pursuing STEM careers face, and how to change societal dialogue and behaviors that hinder girls in their pursuit of STEM careers. Hope to see you there.”

This is the new title and abstract to my keynote address for the Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) Parent-Educator Program, March 3rd 2012, where I will be presenting the latest research on women in engineering and the sciences.  Traditionally this program has attracted about 70 parents to this 500 girl event. To bring in more parents and educators, the EYH organizers will be marketing the parent program for the first time.  This new marketing approach was the inspiration for the title “Want Your Daughter to be an Engineer? Better Watch What Your Say!”.  Time will tell if more parents stay to hear the research – instead of just dropping their daughters off – or if the new direct mailings to educators will entice them to spend a little time on a Saturday morning to hear the research. In any case, I look forward to presenting the latest material to the parents and to see if we can make inroads with the San Diego County educators.

Simply Good or Great

Student College Experience: Sense of Belonging

In the news are two articles (see below): both about the engineering college experience. One – Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) – near the top of the student engagement factor. The other – UC Berkeley – was hit with a wake up call.  It is clear which  university has embraced the  latest STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) research on the student college experience: keeping students’ engineering aspirations alive, building an inclusive environment, attracting and retaining engineering students.

To investigate further, I went to both university’s web pages to see how they brand their engineering departments and to see what would pop up if I did a “STEM” search. The Berkeley web pages show a lot of fascinating technology with a homogenous student population; the “STEM” search comes back with one hit: “STEM Cell Center” in reference to new technology. The WPI web pages show cool technology with a diverse look and feel; the “STEM”  search comes back with its own “STEM Education Center” including an extensive ‘explore the internet’ list of STEM education websites. I’m not saying that Berkeley falls under the “death by lecture” category, they are a good school, but I do wonder about their student college experience especially for under-represented populations. Something to consider when looking for schools. 

  • Why Science Majors Change their Minds  (It’s Just So Darn Hard) by Christopher Drew – Is a Nov 4th, 2011 New York Times article about the fundamental changes engineering schools can do to build engagement and help keep early aspirations alive.  Most of the early engineering courses do not match the image of what aspiring students have of engineering. Much of the fun engineering applications students might have learned from K-12 can turn to an all ”stale”  theory and “death by lecture”. The article advocates a relatively simple change, to add application to its curriculum.  Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has taken this simple concept and added in research, design and social-service in its design projects to their students curriculum. A direct recommendation from the College Student Experience in Why So Few?
  • Diversity Urged at UC Berkeley engineering school – is a Jan 4th, 2012 San Francisco Chronicle article about frustrated students who sense the lack of effort into helping the under-represented engineering students gain a sense of belonging.  Will the leadership’s platitudes turn into anything real?


Discovering WWII STEM Role Model: Margret (Maggie) Gee

During a visit last week, I was drawn to my 5-year old nephew Owen’s signed copy of  “Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee” by Marissa Moss. Owen’s mom, Frances, then told me the story of Maggie Gee – a Berkeley native Chinese American woman pilot who flew during WWII – as his dad, Chris, showed the pictures and video he took at the Las Positas College presentation and book signing where Maggie spoke a month earlier.   

It is always interesting to hear about the pioneers – those who were among the first in their fields helping pave the way for others to follow in their footsteps – and to hear their stories of what sparked their passion. For Maggie, it was her role model Amelia Earhart that got her interested in flying. 

My interest in Maggie grew when I read, in a simple footnote at the end of the book, that Maggie worked as a physicist after retiring as a pilot.  I keep turning the pages looking for more details and wondering if I had skipped a page or two of the book.  Any woman working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) during or immediately after WWII had to be setting firsts for women in her field, university or company. How did Maggie choose to study physics? What was her inspiration and drive? What helped keep her interests alive.

That night I found myself googling “Maggie Gee Physicist” to get to the rest of the story.  Believe it or not, I could not easily find her.  I had to use “Pilot” in the search. Wikipedia made no mention of her being a Physicist. I finally found a couple of links to help flesh out the story behind “Maggie Gee: Physicist“.

I suspect that many of the early women STEM pioneers may not recognize their contributions as paving the way for future generations.  By simply seeing someone who looks like them, having been there and succeed, can provide a sense of confidence for youths that they too can succeed in the field. It can turn what was an unthinkable career choice to one of possibility.

Help Honor the Women STEM Pioneers

I have one request for the WASP web page organizers, Wikipedia and book authors, or anyone whose mother or grandmother worked during WWII. Please help identify and publicize the women who pursued STEM careers. Highlight their successes in their STEM careers, tell us what degrees they earned where they worked. Share the successes for the generations to come with those who will be reading your page(s).  And by all means, include the bigger story in their biographical notes. 

The future of our nation depends on having a steady supply of STEM resources. Having visible and inspiring role models from our foremothers can help pave that way for girls and women in STEM.

We should all express our gratitude to the groups and individuals who took steps to memorialize the WWII WASPs: the effort to have them honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, writing books about them, inviting them to speak about their experiences. These help to bring light to many inspiring stories. Now if only we could find a way to make a children’s book about STEM as exciting as flying a fighter plane.