Advancing the Image of Engineering One Audience at a Time

Archive for March, 2012

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.