Advancing the Image of Engineering One Audience at a Time

Archive for December, 2011

Pioneers

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.

Sci Tech Girls Field Trip

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center ‘Sci Tech Girls’ Field Trip Dec 10th, 2011

      The Sci Tech girls – fourth to eighth grade girls from the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center after school program – came in for their first plant visit today to meet a few engineers and to learn a little more about engineering.  Thirty girls rolled out of the bus at a quarter till nine with three chaperones. Ten volunteers from our ‘Women in Engineering’ affinity group – closely associated with the Society of Women Engineers – welcomed them to our discussion, hands on activity, and tour. 

The girls were alert and attentive during our introductory ‘From Turbines to Facebook’ engine basics. They wanted to know how our company was founded, what our engines were doing in the various countries, how the parts came into the company to be manufactured, and what we were doing to support the green energy initiatives. If we didn’t have a preset schedule – including a tour and hands-on build a generator activity – we very well might have still been talking about electricity, blackouts, pumping stations, how fuel gets to the engines, and the power grid itself.

I’ve participated in quite a few youth based initiatives from our annual bring your child to work day to  other SWE K-12 outreach events. The youth always tend to enjoy the icebreakers, hands on activities and tours. But there was something very different about this set of very young girls – mostly under the age of 10 – that went beyond their high degree of being respectful and attentive. They had developed the art of asking questions. Good, open-ended questions, to probe the depths of what it is like to be an engineer.

The ability to ask questions is by definition key to the scientific mind. It is a key part of the art of discovery and crucial in problem solving. When I commented on how well the girls had asked questions, their education director credited this skill to training. They have the girls watch videos of scientists and engineers – from their Sci Tech blog – and have them practice asking questions. Their skills of scientific inquiry were definitely paying off. They had won the hearts of the volunteers as their young protegees asked questions about their jobs, what a typical day in the life of an engineer was, and how this fit into the world around us.  

By 1pm, our lively Q&A session with our engineering panel – representing manufacturing, design, and analysis – wrapped up. The students meticulously picked up their personal belongings cleaning up the area around them, expressed their sincere gratitude, and piled back onto the bus heading home to the science center.