Dec 5, 2011

Navy Notes 2: Sisters-in-arms

This is the second installment in a series of posts based on my experience on the Navy aircraft carrier (USS Carl Vinson) through the Educators to Sea (ETS) program.
 
Let's be clear. While growing up, I didn't see very good press about the Navy and women, so I was especially observant of the situation of women on this trip. What was the Navy's commitment to having women?

I found that in many ways, the experience of women in the Navy seems to parallel that of women in engineering (my experience). Interestingly, the military approach may provide some insight for corporations who want to improve their relations with women. I'm definitely not advocating the adoption of military methods in civilian life, but as an engineer, it would be foolish of me not to investigate and evaluate existing designs.

Not for "High Maintenance" Women
What's it like being a woman on deck? I asked the female officer over lunch. "It's not for everyone," she replied. "My sister, for example, really wouldn't fit in." How so? I pressed further. "Well, you can't be worried about your clothes, or your nails, or your hair," she explained. Ah, I responded, you mean you can't be "high maintenance"? Yes, that was it, she responded, happy that someone understood. It wasn't a judgment; she obviously loved and respected her sister. But it was a style. As a woman in the military, you have be able to run with the boys, literally, but as a woman engineer, there is a need to run with them figuratively.

Most women engineers I know are comfortable with “not normal.” I can’t tell you how many women starting in engineering don’t mind “being the only girl” in classes or teams ("Women making slow, sure strides in science, math"). It’s something that we’ve gotten used to. Some even say they get along better with guys, feeling that they’re not a “normal” girl – at least in the “girly back-biting" way that one sees in movies like Heathers or Mean Girls. Many are excited about the prospect of meeting other women who are also interested in engineering, but they are used to being looked at as “less feminine” than the average woman. Being “different,” “abnormal,” or “quirky” doesn’t have as much stigma for us as it might for our other female friends.

It's About the Job
The military, in stereotypical form, has dictated standard operating procedure (SOP) for everything for both men and women, starting from the identity-blurring dress code down to how to enter berthing for the opposite sex. The result, for better or worse, largely eliminates individual identity and puts focus on the job. Consider the fact that that The shirt color of those on board indicates their job and the words or emblems on them indicate the rank. Except for my host and the CMC I had breakfast with, I sadly can't recall individual's names. For example, I shook the Airboss's hand (pleasant fellow, but what I remember most was that he had "AIRBOSS" stamped right on his shirt).

On the flight deck, the blurring became even clearer. After watching cat-launches and recoveries, one of the teachers exclaimed that if she were a girl, she would want to be on the flight deck, not in an office doing paper work (like the yeoman we met in the bathroom). But there were women on deck, we were told. The protective gear just made them indistinguishable at times from men. As a woman engineer, I sometimes wished for that. Too many times in class, my female classmates and I would stick out like sore thumbs. When I worked in the factory, I invested in navy blue coveralls so I would blend in with the male factory workers (mainly so they wouldn't come over and socialize with me since they actually associated women with people to chat with); I needed to get my job done, after all.
Airboss and Pri-fly personnel

It's About Clarity
The SOPs about berthing privacy tells me that women are around to stay. After all, if they were an exception, they wouldn't have gone to the trouble of detailing the procedure and posting them on the berthing doors.

This clarity translates to requirements for promotion. A recruiter on the tour explained the experiences required to get promoted, in addition to good performance in one's current job. Industry may have something to learn from them as a peeve of many women engineers is a lack of clarity on how to navigate advancement through the system ("Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering").

It's About the Facts of Life
The Navy doesn't deny what can happen when you put 18-24 year old men and women together for long periods of time. There is a bluntness about the fact that women are a different sex. Sex (and I mean the act) is tackled head on: "There is no sex on deck," our host informed us because they all had to stay focused on their mission at hand. But, sometimes camaraderie changes to more. The CMC informed us that sometimes people do fall in love. Marvelous, she said, but let me move each of you to a place where you can stay focused on your job. So your shipmates don't get compromised, and so neither of you do something that would jeopardize your careers. There wasn't a denial that sex was a part of life, but there clarity that being on tour is not the time or place, whether you are a man or a woman.

"The Head"
Distinguished Visitors' Head
For me, though, the trip confirmed the real indicator about the Navy's commitment to women: their investment in separate bathrooms ("heads"). During my research on co-education for the book, She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect, I found after sexist arguments were put aside, the real concern alums had about admitting women was "the cost." It took me a while to figure out they were talking about the bathrooms.

In my consulting days in factories, women's bathrooms were about a quarter mile away from the machines I worked with since all the operators who used my machines were male. The absence of facilities really can say something about the institution's commitment to having women.  Surprisingly, even today, students me that they visit engineering buildings that have no women's bathrooms in them.

Contrast this with Executive Officer Tolliver proudly telling me that submarines, the last all-male frontier in the Navy, were going to have women officers next year. Just officers? I asked. He explained that the officer bathrooms were easier to make unisex than enlisted ones. Our host on deck confirmed the role of the head on diversity: Though the Navy is about 20% women, women made up only about 10% on the aircraft carrier. "It will probably stay that way," she said, "because of the bathrooms."

So apparently. in addition to policies and procedures, the way to measure the Navy's commitment (or any other male-dominated institution) to women on deck is to look at the plumbing investment on any new vessel. Think about that next time you are in the head.

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Nov 8, 2011

Navy Notes 1: What you can learn aboard an aircraft carrier

In September, I was fortunate enough to tour and sleep on a Navy aircraft carrier (USS Carl Vinson) through the Educators to Sea (ETS) program. At my debriefing, I was asked to both share these real-life, large scale examples as I taught STEM to teachers and to let them know how the Navy can help them encourage children into STEM. This is the first installment in a series of posts based on my experience.
On the flight deck, readying for ops exercises


This story begins at the end when I was debriefed by the Minneapolis Navy Recruiting District's Executive Officer, Shannon Tolliver, and Education Specialist, Thomas Ninneman. When you are working with your STEM Certificate teachers, they asked, please let them know that we want to help them encourage children into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), especially engineering. (They certainly knew how to appeal to me!) Why? So many people on a ship interact with such sophisticated technology that having recruits who are STEM-competent makes their job easier. For example:
  • The seemingly rigorous rules about electronics on board make more sense for someone who understands about the power they draw. Crew are not allowed to have their own electronic devices like microwaves or hot pots because heating things up takes a lot of energy. However, electric clocks are also a no-no, more because they constantly draw electricity. So what do they use for their very rigorous schedule? I asked a crewman. Wind up or battery clocks, ma'am, he replied. 
  • Understanding how to better use and maintain technological equipment helps them keep the city-sized aircraft carrier running smoothly. With limited energy, food, and human resources, they depend on every person contributing all that he or she can. If something breaks down while at sea, it may be necessary to figure out an alternative solution, so understanding how the technological world works is a plus.
  • And if someone is incapacitated while at sea, another may need to step in and help out. Thus, thinking "outside the box" is needed by all hands which requires an understanding of the big picture and how each part fits into that larger scheme. Systems thinking is something honed in engineering.
While the Navy wants more recruits to be STEM-literate, these efforts, Tolliver explained, are also good for the nation. From recent research, he seems to be right: The 2007 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, emphasizes the importance for a STEM professional base for  economic growth and innovation. Most recently, a study from Georgetown's Center of Education and the Workforce indicates the need for a pipeline of people with STEM-competencies for both STEM positions as well as non-STEM jobs "such as health care management and professional and business services."

Please let teachers know, Tolliver said, that all of our local technical personnel are at their disposal for things like judging science fair or robotics competitions, or for more personal interactions like talking about how STEM is used in a variety of careers. They can come either in uniform or everyday clothes. After being on the ship, it occurred to me that the personnel could offer more than technical knowledge; they could provide models for those teens who might not have found motivation to focus their intellectual potentials.
CMC April Beldo explains inspection procedures

Before embarking on the ship, the briefing officer mentioned to our tour group: You will see young men and women who were in high school not so long ago now handling highly sophisticated equipment with a professionalism that would surprise you. The Command Master Chief (CMC) April Beldo would agree. She had an obvious sense of discipline as well as care for her crew, describing herself as "a high school principal of over 2000 energetic 18-24 year olds" with huge responsibilities to themselves and to each other.  Every rule has a reason, she helps them understand.

For example, one person told us of the tool check-in and check-out system. All tools must be accounted for when the crew returns because loose metal on the flight deck can wreak havoc on jet engines. One young man, however, could not find one of his tools. Care is taken to help the crew prioritize events, and he understood that it was better to confess a problem when it was small rather than hide it and allow it to become something big that could put a shipmate in harm's way. The operations were paused, and a search was done to find the tool. As a training exercise, the young man was put in charge of counting every tool in the crib for a couple of weeks, and he apparently never mislaid a tool on deck again.

Of course, some of the personnel learn their lesson so well, that it becomes a bit comic. A helicopter pilot told us one story of a young man who was blown off the deck while working. Helicopters are at the ready for such emergency, with a designated "swimmer" who jumps into the water to make first contact with the person overboard. In this instance, the swimmer got to the young man who was desperately trying to swim with his tool belt! He just couldn't let go of the extra weight. The swimmer finally convinced him that he wouldn't get in trouble because his tools would be accounted for -- at the bottom of the ocean, very much out of range of any operating jet engine. Some lessons are learned a bit too well, eh?

Future posts will cover STEM-on-a-large-scale, reflections on women in the Navy, and how using ASVAB test questions with women may reveal new ways of assessing the true potential of today's youth.

Oct 20, 2011

It's not over until ...

I'm seeing a number of reports, commentaries, and blogs about women in engineering. As I have had an interest in this area since college (see: She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect) -- and I'm a woman engineer -- I thought it might be a good time to revisit the topic in light of recent research.

For those unfamiliar, here's a two-second introduction to the main ideas behind current discussions:
After finding these two headlines for this particular topic, I got irritated. I had to find out what the real findings of the study were, so I leveraged my liberal arts education and sought out the proverbial horse's mouth. (Princeton, my alma mater, would be proud.)

The actual Park, et al study "Effects of Everyday Romance Goal Pursuit on Women's Attitudes Toward Math and Science" has these highlights:
  • The experimental design consisted of three parts: 1) "priming" women and men with romance and intelligence images, 2) priming them with overheard conversations about romantic, intellectual or friendship pursuits, and 3) having women keep a daily log of time spent on intellectual and romantic pursuits
  • The first sample set indicated that the women showed a definite loss of interest in majoring in STEM after being exposed to romance primes, even for those initially interested in STEM.
  • Men were largely unaffected.
This is where it got interesting for me. ... Men seemed set, unflinching; so if you want to get them into STEM, you have to set them on a path early because it will be hard to derail them (though my math/sociology student pointed out perhaps a more hard-core image set rather than romance images would be required for men to have the primal "mate-seeking" urges triggered).

But, with that perspective in mind, the data seemed to indicate that women can still be influenced even while in college. Sure, this study showed how they can be negatively influenced, but there were clues to the fact that there could be positive influences, too: "among participants who overhead the friendship conversation, women reported more positive attitudes towards STEM than did men" and "the more women pursued intelligence goals on the previous day, the more math activities they engaged in on the following day."

The engineer in me interprets this as: Environment matters, so if we retool our environment, women can be primed for success in STEM even when in college. That certainly is the philosophy of the women's college concept. In some ways, all-girls' schools should pick up this research with interest; all-women's colleges should dig more into this.

I am not one who can change societal environments easily, so I have a personal request to Drew Barrymore and Tina Fey: Can you please make some great, entertaining movies that prime girls and women towards this kind of success? Barrymore's films such as Never Been Kissed and Whip It! are great stories about odd-ball women emerging in a society that told them they had no place. Certainly women engineers could be fresh fodder. And Fey's entertaining and witty Mean Girls was based off a the non-fiction piece, Queen Bees and Wannabes (and the main character was good in math and liked it: "Math is the same in every country"). Certainly, the research around women and engineering (or STEM in general) invites some interesting drama (and comedy if you knew the stories I know)?

In the mean time, if you've got a budding woman engineer, just remember, the glass is half-full, not half-empty and draining. While females may be influenced away from fulfilling their STEM abilities, they can also be influenced positively and even inoculated (see Damour and Goodman's "Shielding Students from Stereotype Threat: A Guide for Teachers").

Just remember, it's not over until ... perhaps, later than we thought.

Sep 13, 2011

One small step...

In Memory of the Anniversary of Dad's Birth
Let's make it very clear. I loved my father very much, but I suspect we never really understood each other. Take, for example, his desire to get me hooked on science and engineering. He once said, “You should love doing it so much, you don't even have time to go to the bathroom!” I responded that was just silly. Soiling one's pants did not show passion just bad judgment in prioritizing necessary business.

I think he wished that I, like the son of a colleague, would wire up my room with alarm systems and booby traps for the prying parent (like himself!). He even tried to enroll me in the local science museum's Saturday classes. I tried. I hated getting up Saturday morning, driving (I got car sick easily), and being with a bunch of people who I didn't know, wouldn't talk with me, and doing things which were way simpler than the Heathkits we had at home.

He probably passed from this earth believing his daughter just didn't have the passion around things technical because he didn't see in her what he saw in himself. This blog obviously shows that the passion exists, so I hope he's looking back at me a bit happier.

I mention this because sometimes parents use the wrong metrics and the wrong venues for their children. The transition from children's interest to “typical engineering activities” is far from standard. In fact, looking back, my willingness to learn more about engineering and technology came from my desire to spent time with him. Dad had far better success in getting me to do electronics by inviting me downstairs to solder the next bit of the Heathkit Hero robot with him rather than giving me a kit of electronic parts and components. I actually got myself out of bed on a Sunday morning to learn assembly language programming because it was time to be with him. I even tried to learn Morse code because I loved the delicious mischievous smile he had whenever we sent secret messages to each other.

Recently, my friend was dismayed that her daughter was not “taking” to the latest engineering activities she received for Christmas. She expected her daughter to spend hours working on them on her own, much like her own engineering brother did when he was young. Success with her daughter, I informed her, would not look like success with her brother. And the activities might look slightly different. As a typical girl (pink feathers, jewelry, and posing for fashion shots were what got her excited), she would need to enter the engineering world through a different door.

To account for her need to be social, we got her Zoob – the game to play with others and to develop her 2-d to 3-d spatial skills. We also got her a marble run kit to make roller coasters while giving her an instinct about slopes, gravity, and potential and kinetic energy that science and math teachers could tap into in the future. For another friend, I suggested Flexeez and her daughter promptly made herself a dress out of the materials while getting a feel for shapes and structural requirements of an organically shaped design.

You will be the most successful if you start with where your child's interests naturally fall. Many roads lead to skills required for engineering, so you can be more focused in how you guide them in their journey. These possible first steps implement the guidelines in my book, Engineering for the Uninitiated.

>> See more ways to help your child take the first step into building engineering skills
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Sep 10, 2011

Engineering for Social People

As I was researching for future book for Mechanical Engineers, I found out something interesting about engineering career advising. Get this...

Our Career Development director taught me about Holland Codes, a system for determining students' strong interests. No surprise: Engineers are highly Realistic (R) people which means they tend to be concrete, present-thinking, and hand-on oriented. However, the interesting part was how different types of engineering split on the secondary interest.
  • Electrical and Chemical Engineers have Investigative (I) as a secondary interest. They have more "scientific" personalities than other engineers; science people have "I" as a primary interest. They love analysis activities and really strive to "dig out" the specifics of phenomena they encounter.
  • Civil Engineers have Enterprising (E) as their secondary. This means they are more like business folks who love the interaction of politics, economics, large ventures, and risk. Civ E's I know are comfortable with LARGE scale projects involving a lot of players and very big money.
  • Mechanical Engineers had Social (S) as their secondary, which means that they like more interaction with people, seek out ways to understand and support others.
Frankly, this latter analysis of MEs surprised me. Not that I subscribe to the stereotype that engineers are socially inept geeks, but compared to education majors, social workers, and counselors, we really aren't SOCIAL.

My Career Development helped me process it: Do you work on team projects? she asked. Well, yes, I answered. Does success require successful human interaction, consideration, and motivation? Well, yes, mechanical engineering is so broad, even a strictly mechanical engineering project will require a range of experts.

In college, my EE roommate observed that MEs danced around in lab and joked around whereas the EEs stuck in their groups and often scolded each other. Today, practicing MEs have indicated that only about 20% of their work requires direct application of the technical knowledge that they were tested on while in school. The other 80% consists of a high degree of people interaction and communication, something they didn't actually learn in their formal education. One engineer even said he wanted to write a book to the younger generation, warning them about this. He was a bit relieved when I told him Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School might be a useful start; I don't think he had a lot of time on his hands.


I recently ran across The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, which further underlines the expected social interactions engineers must have with managers, clients, and vendors. No wonder ABET accreditation requires a successful engineer to have a well-rounded education.

When I was growing up, engineering was suggested to students who had interest and aptitude in science and mathematics. I have now refined the process to help students navigate the different types of engineering. I stay with some of the primary types, for simplicity, treating some of the other engineers are specialties within these larger ones (blame Princeton for my desire to keep a minimum number of engineering fields). My questions are:
  • Why engineering? Their answers give me an idea whether science, mathematics, or engineering is the best fit. If they love learning why things do what they do, love to set up experiments to figure out which variables that affect the situation, then science or a highly investigative field is probably best for them. If they really like the puzzles, logic, and pattern finding -- and the actual application is not as important, then mathematics (or computers) may actually be better. If they really are very problem-oriented, strive to find the solutions to particular nagging situations, then engineering may be it.
  • What types of engineering are you considering? Their answer gives me insight into their motivations. What types of things do they like to work with? Do they like machinery, calculations, electronics? Do they like large things, human-sized things, or things you can't even see with the naked eye. For example, My husband and I are both MEs because like cats, we find things far more interesting when they move.
  • What courses did you like in high school? Why? This third question helps me triangulate on their interests and gives me a clue about their theoretical vs practical inclinations. A friend asked me whether I advise a high school student to be an Electrical Engineer or Computer Scientist. I responded with the simple question of "What does he like to do? Work with the computer or work with electronics?" These are really very different jobs and thus different educations. If he didn't like doing one, why would he want to study it? It was a revelation to my friend who was just thinking in terms of salary and job security.
  • What do you like to do for fun? This gives yet another data point for triangulation. It also gives me a sense of the student's experience with tools and technology, communication, project management, creativity, persistence, and problem solving. With this information, I can give more concrete advice on what the students should focus on in future years.
  • What would your dream job look like/entail? This is sometimes harder for students to imagine. Either they have no idea what working for a living would even look like, or they want do what they want to do, when the want to do it (who wouldn't love to do that?). However, if they do have an idea of what their ideal job dynamics, challenges, and work environment would be, that helps me know whether a more investigative, social, or enterprising discipline is best.
So far, I've been able to predict the right engineering for my students. One didn't believe me, but later tried to switch into the field I suggested during her graduate years, and another ended up switching from aerospace to mechanical when she realized (as I had been suggesting) it provided a broader experience for her interests.

Okay, as Han Solo said in Star Wars, let's not get cocky...

Related links:

Aug 8, 2011

"Women Arts" and Engineering


I recently spoke at a First Step meeting for high achieving women of color to help them prepare for college. A revelation hit me while there: While only one of the 30 expressed an interest in engineering, more than half of them cited arts and crafts as a favorite hobby.
“Arts and crafts” rattled something in my brain. Seemingly random thoughts hit me like pellets leading me to a realization: We may be overlooking a pool of women who were already developing essential engineering traits.
In the 1970s, women who were “good at science and math” were targeted as potential engineers. The assumption seemed to doing math and science was the big hurdle, that women who already had that under their belt could easily transition to engineering. But consider recent studies that indicate that inexperience and insecurity in using the tools and technology of engineering (e.g. computers, tools) influence success (See SWE 2009 Literature Review, pp. 56-58). Couple this with research that shows that spatial skills, rather than mathematical ability, were better indications of success in science and engineering – and that those skills can be learned and perfected through hands-on experiences like those in arts and crafts projects.
In the 1950’s, budding male engineers build model airplanes, tweaked their bicycles to get better performance, and exploded rockets in the back 40. With these, they were building experience with tools and technologies, developing spatial skills, and getting a sense of the laws of nature through physics and chemistry experiments.
But are those the only ways to get those end results? Here were those seemingly random thoughts that came to me:
  • My grandmother who demonstrated amazing spatial skills when she walked into clothing stores in Hong Kong, looked at the latest fashion, and then went home to make the clothes for all her daughters.
  • My sister who used her math/scaling activities to make 1/12-scale miniature food.
  • My aunt who made 3D origami fish, swans and baskets.
  • A fashion student’s desire to learn electronics so she could add LEDs to her clothing line (her video is featured above -- before she could add lights)
  • An education student in our recent introduction to engineering class who used her jewelry making skills to make her own check valve in 1/8” tube.
  • And the numerous women who took ceramics and learned about the science of glazing; took photography and learned the chemistry of fixing pictures and the physics of f-stops; and took iron casting and learned how to think in negative space as well as the nature of metals while doing an iron pour.
How many women do we overlook because we assume engineering traits are developed with dissecting clocks rather than making jewelry; tweaking motorcycle engines rather than spicing up the drape and technology in a dress; or building rockets rather than fiddling with an iron pour? If engineering wants to have more diversity in its people, perhaps it should seek diversity in their preparation.
Related links:

Jul 13, 2011

Success Tips for Millenial Engineers

With each June, I send my Millenial (or Gen Y) students out into the “world of work.” The recession has been a tough wake-up call for them as entry level jobs are not as plentiful as earlier in the millennium. My discussions with professionals indicate they still have a lot to learn regarding “work ethic, self-motivation, personal accountability, punctuality, time management and professionalism.”.
As they take off on their new adventures, I remind them of five key perspectives that will help them become the successful professionals they want to be:


  • When starting a job, show you can stick with it: You need your company (and job) more than they need you. Jumping from job to job because it seemed “under-challenging” in the first 3 months just starts looking like you can’t hack it when the honeymoon period is over. Expect to stay for 1-3 years at the job, so use your time in the interview wisely to see if this is someplace you can learn the basics of the industry.

  • When accepting your job, prove you can play with the big kids: Realize that the first tasks you are assigned are really tests to see what you can do. How can they trust you with the harder, riskier tasks until you can show you can handle the easier ones? Each task you are complete builds your experience and helps you develop judgment about what is critical or risky – when you can go it on your own or when it’s time to ask for advice. Excuses like “I didn’t do well because the tasks were too easy” don’t work anymore. Remember, if you can’t do a simple task, your boss won’t be convinced that you can play with the big kids.

  • When working the job, try not to be a punk: Though you are coming in with a shiny new education with new technologies at your fingertips, you need to prove that you can perform under real life situations. The issue is not about what you know (they wouldn’t have hired you if you were a blooming idiot), so don’t be a punk who disregards people with 20 years of experience when they point out other factors to consider. Remember that time is money. If you take too much time to do tasks, the company will lose money on you, and that means they will lose you next. The rule I was told at my first job is that I’m smart enough to figure out most things in about half an hour. If it’s going to take longer, then I must be missing something so I spend the rest of the hour trying to fill the gaps as quickly. The most efficient way is to find the expert, whether it’s a boss, a vendor, or tech support. This is far better than spinning wheels by myself and getting nowhere fast. Your goal in any assignment is to show that you can learn quickly, work accurately, and produce a high level of quality.

  • When doing your job, whenever possible, call or ask in person rather than email: So many Millenials send emails instead of picking up the phone. For such a social generation, it baffles me. Emails are not always the best communication method at work because older, more experienced (and busy) experts are often not used to checking email regularly. Additionally, letting a person hear your voice can be more persuasive than sending an email. I have gotten people to do favors in a short period of time when I asked them in person. Don’t forget that people read emails subject to the mood they are in. While you may think you picked your words carefully to be light and humorous, the reader may interpret it differently if he or she is in a bad mood, feels stressed, or is actually angry with you. Following up direct personal communication with a brief email to summarize the discussion is totally appropriate, but always remember that the personal connections get you a jump start on the road to being seen as a professional who is articulate and thinks well on the spot.

  • When learning on the job, embrace the opportunities to learn from experts: The more you learn, the more you realize you have to learn. Instead of seeing this as an affront to your abilities, embrace being in a company of experts as an opportunity. While older generations are impressed with Millenial abilities with phone apps, search engines, and social networking, Gen-X engineers aren’t going to be impressed easily with your skills with gadgets: These are the people who in the 80’s built their own computers, fiddled with their car or motorcycle engines, and made robots do amazing things with just 8 KB of RAM and assembly code. Engineering “in the old days” taught them a lot about what the technology can do, without the trappings of high speed processors and the Internet. They have a lot to share, so make the most of the relationship by showing that you want to move from being a “master user” to a “master builder.”

  • Before ever looking for a job, remember these professional habits start in school: Coming to class on time, being prepared, and delivering high quality work start the habits and reputation you want when you work. Treat school work as you would a job so your professors can speak not only about your intelligence, but also about your reliability and ability to learn from experts, meet deadlines, and handle challenges. Employers don’t need you to be a 4.0 student, but they do need to know that “professional” is part of you, not just something you will turn on “when it’s time to be serious” so treat school as your training grounds for the real world.

Good luck out there! I’m rooting for you.
Related links:

Jun 22, 2011

SCUBA prosthetic foot

It's a crazy month. I've been tied up with MN teachers galore. Good for engineering, but not good for my blog or the launch of the book, Engineering for the Uninitiated.

Good news: Here's a You Tube video of the underwater test the UMN senior design team took last year. I wanted it to be sexier -- with snazzy music and SCUBA scenes, but it will give you an idea of what is coming soon!



May 1, 2011

Don Music -- Engineer?

Let me just say upfront, that no, Don Music, famous Muppet composer is not an engineer. I just thought that might catch people's attention, and get me back into the Engineer's Playground spirit again. I've been a bit more introspective and analytical (not as playful) these last few months than usual. At the end of this month, I will be attending my 20th college reunions. Since I had the reputation of being a Sesame Street fiend, it seems fitting that I should relate engineering to a Muppet. So here it goes...

Recently, I was asked by elementary teachers if I knew of a book for children about the engineering design process, outside of curriculum such as Engineering is Elementary. Since the "definition" of the engineering design process is a relatively new concept, I couldn't name a classic piece of literature, per se. But, if we thought broadly of the engineering design process as a logical iterative method based on trying something, analyzing the results, and modifying it while driven by a human need, well, there are some options.

One of the problems that children (and maybe adults) have with engineering is being willing to throw out all previous work in the pursuit of the best possible solution within accepted constraints. This is where Don Music may help out future engineers.

For those who are unfamiliar with the composing team of Kermit the Frog (present as a reporter from Sesame Street News) and Don Music, this is how their process usually goes:

  1. Don has composed a lovely song, complete except for the last word. My favorites (below) are Yankee Doodle, Mary Had a Little Lamb, and Sunny Days.
  2. Don then gets writer's block and bangs his head in frustration on the piano (I was told that many educators find this a bad role model for children, which is understandable).
  3. Kermit steps in and has Don articulate his problem. For example, Don can't find an ending word that rhymes with "pony" (he has already figured out "Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony. Stuck a feather in his hat and called it ...")
  4. Kermit then suggests something - in this case, "macaroni." But Don rejects it because it doesn't satisfy his constraints of song-writing: Songs must rhyme AND make sense.
  5. The two of them them work backwards, suggesting and eliminating ideas, figuring out what would make sense, while still rhyming.
  6. They end up with a completely different set of lyrics than they started out with, but it does actually meet all the specifications.
I really like this process for a few reasons. It demonstrates:
  • An iterative process
  • How to work within constraints
  • The brainstorming process
  • How two brains are better than one
  • How you don't always know what the solution will look like when you start
If we want our future generation to be innovation leaders, these are all great lessons for any child, not just one that will grow up to be an engineer.

See Don Music and Kermit in action:





Like this? Then get ready for my upcoming book, Engineering for the Uninitiated. It's designed specifically for parents and teachers who aren't familiar with engineering but want to be so they can help their children develop engineering traits. You can take a peek at the companion website by clicking on the link on the right and get a glimpse of what's coming.
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Apr 19, 2011

The Points of My Compass

I recently moderated a panel on Technology in Education at the Minnesota High Tech Association Spring Conference. The common thread, interestingly, was about access to education. It got me thinking about my own teaching philosophy, and in a sense, why I continue to do what I do.

It's good practice for me to occasionally locate myself as I travel through life and make sure I'm on a good heading. Here's where the points of my compass come from:

  • North - Education is the doorway to opportunity: Dad is my touchstone for this. As a boy who grew up on a rice paddy field in China, education, provided by the Maryknoll fathers, enabled him to end up a NASA research scientist with a couple of patents under his belt. He instilled in me the importance of investing in education and endless stories about how hard work is what is needed to get ahead.

  • South - Women's access to education has been long in coming: Mom is my touchstone for this reality. Even though the university Mom went to had engineering, she knew that there was no way she could become one. Why? Well, in Hong Kong, they have annual testing of students to determine their rank in several subjects. The top ranking student in mathematics, physics, and chemistry one year was a woman who applied to the engineering school. Despite her qualifications, her application was declined. Mom said the message was clear: Women could not become engineers. In a way, becoming an engineer was our little family triumph over injustice, but with women making up only 10% of practicing engineers, there is still a way to go.

  • West - Everyone develops on a different schedule: My husband is my current touchstone for this. Like many others, mathematics did not come easy for him, so he enrolled himself in remedial math when he was in college. With success and understanding, he built confidence and improved his grades with each level of mathematics. If the college he attended did not permit him to start where he was comfortable, he never could have become an engineer or eventually own his own engineering company. I remember him every time I meet with a student who is struggling but who has drive. Despite the fragility of the human ego, it also flourishes with just a little bit of nourishment.

  • East - Sometimes people need a hand to believe they can do it: My teenage angst is my touchstone. When I was a teenager, I was convinced that my artificial leg meant I couldn't do anything in gym class. I don't know why; When I was in 2nd grade, I could run faster than a lot of other kids. But, as a teen, I was pretty sure that those days of athleticism were over. I explained, very logically to the gym teacher why it would be foolish for me to jump over the pommel horse. I explained that since I would jump in an asymmetric manner, I would not be able to mount the horse, let alone pull my legs up to clear the horse. My instructor blankly replied, "Run and jump." Fine, I thought, I will slam my face into the horse and then she'll know I know my physics. As I raced towards the horse and hit the springboard, I saw the horse flying towards my face, just as I had predicted. But then, there was something on my butt, pushing me over. It wasn't graceful, but I cleared the horse and somehow didn't die. That experience changed something in me. Even though I didn't do it myself, I had seen what success could look like. It was a good feeling, to have a chance at success rather than continually have to explain not even trying. When I teach, I remember that sometimes students need a little hand-up to build their confidence so that they have the inner strength to take on the challenges ahead.
Something seems missing. Perhaps, I should include, as the Chinese do, the Center or "stay where you are" direction. Life isn't always moving in a particular direction. Sometimes if where you are is in balance, that can be the best possible result of life:
  • Center - Develop all abilities so that many options are open: My sister is my touchstone for this. Throughout her life, she has developed her mathematical and science abilities as well as her literary and artistic skills. I have always been amazed how she has been able to do so many things: As a child, she ran a fix-it service for our home, running "advertisements" in the home newspaper she wrote, designed, and distributed. In high school, she wrote poetry and plays which were published and produced, and in college, she made miniature food and then sold them on a website she created. When my engineering and computer science students complain about their liberal arts core requirements, I realize I need to help them discover how these other abilities allow them to do amazing things.
So, as I sit here, wondering why I, as an automation engineer, am teaching at a university with no engineering or computer science program, I realize that I am just where I should be.

St. Catherine University continues the Catholic tradition of providing access to all students. Working with the STEM program, I help not only the women that do discover and engineering and computer science is for them (and help them navigate our dual degree and ACTC programs), but also help teachers develop the engineer inside each child. Personally, I continue to be grounded and enlightened by my fellow faculty who value the balance that the liberal arts tradition provides.

I guess I'll hold this heading for a while more.

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Apr 3, 2011

Engineering Engineers

Where did March go? I sit this Sunday morning, with remnants of a persistent cold/cough that has plagued me in some way for well over a month. Illness affects the memory and apparently, and I forgot to post a blog for March. My apologies for the tens of people who were eagerly awaiting something ;). It was a busy month, despite my illness. As I reflect back (darn, that liberal arts education I had), I realize that there are some key themes linking the seemingly different, major events of the month. Together, they frame my general strategy of engineering our future engineers. Briefly:

  • Invest in brains, not kits. This was one of two major points I made at a STEM roundtable held by Al Franken in late Feb. Teacher development can give so much better return on investment than any particular educational (often over-priced) kit. Too many times we look for "plug and play" solutions that will work with every person. Instead, we need to think about educating our teachers about engineering, so that they may be able to use their teaching knowledge and skills to educate our children about engineering in age-appropriate ways.


  • Start early. This was the other major point. Like an Olympic champion, the journey starts early. Capturing children's imagination early helps them capitalize on the full educational lessons they learn in school, and with this positive mindset, gives them the opportunity to continue learning what's needed for engineering.


  • It's never too late for change. While it's valuable to introduce children early to engineering, the same can be said for teachers. This is why I helped develop the course, Makin' and Breakin': Engineering in Your World, for our education majors. Though for college students who chose not to become engineers, the course is designed to women on to engineering early in their college career. This way, they have the time to see how it permeates life as they know it... and how inspiring, understandable, and useful it is. At the presentation, "Engineering is ... Developing Competent, Confident, Comfortable STEM Teachers" at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) national conference in San Francisco on March 11, my education collegaue and I shared the larger lessons teachers-to-be took away from the course (St. Kate's faculty play to a packed house at NSTA).


  • Make engineering the right scale. Bigger is not always better, but that's how engineering has been sold: Big buildings, bridges, rockets! But this limited image of engineering makes engineering seem foreign to many, especially women that I have worked with. The success of our NSTA workshop's introductory activity supported this. The Yvonne's Story activity has been used in many of our engineering classes. With just index cards and tape, the activity awakens the engineering spirit in people who were skeptical of their ability to learn or do engineering. This tabletop activity brought engineering within reach (literally).


  • Make the education relevant to the practice. Creating engaging activities and challenges isn't so difficult if we remember that engineering is a balance of technical and soft skills applied towards meeting a need. The American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) magazine (toilet story) interviewed me in a recent article, citing activities I developed after reading the results of a survey of computer professionals. Soft skills are not just important when the engineer has entered the workforce, it is valueable to make technical challenges require the full spectrum of skills. Doing so helped me entice women who were not typically motivated by the technical challenge alone (ASEE 2008 Conference: Awakening Interest and Improving Employability: A Curriculum That Improves the Participation and Success of Women in Computer Science).


  • Address the whole person. Working with women engineers, in particular, I realize that the studies that come out analyze the barriers women face, but seldom translate that factual realization to meaningful strategies. The Science Club for Girls posed a challenge for me to reflect on the coping strategies I used throughout my life and advise "my younger self" in a meaningful way. I realize the value of all my experiences: engineering education at a liberal arts institution, being Chinese, being disabled, being a woman, caring about people, respecting teachers, etc. Together, they help me solve the problems. Engineering is not just a brain activity, it is a heart one as well.
Not too bad for being sick for a month...

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Feb 17, 2011

Five Tips for a Prospective Tiger Parent

From Picassa
My sister mentioned that her son seems to be consuming a lot of food these days. At 5 months, that either means a physical growth spurt or a new developmental milestone. I like to think it's because I have been coaching him to crawl.

"Can't you do nap-coaching or sit-up-coaching instead?" my sister pleaded, dreading the baby-proofing that will be required when he becomes mobile. But since I only see him every few months, I have to work on the more advanced stuff. He's already getting better at napping and sitting up, so we have to raise the bar again. Crawling seems an appropriate goal.

My sister will come to terms with her son's fast-paced learning. After all, we are both children of Tiger parents (as Amy Chua has coined) -- parents who pushed us to achieve all that we could.

I haven't read the book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) in detail, but from the many "excerpts out of context", I feel that I need to offer advice to those who wonder if they can be a successful Tiger Parent. It certainly has influenced how I teach computer science and engineering to my college students and in-service teachers.

  1. Believe in your child's ability. In my post, Help Them Believe, I mentioned that a teacher needs to help children believe they can do it. However, that belief must start within the teachers (or parents) themselves. This is what Amy Chua alludes to with the Tiger image. As a Tiger parent, you must believe that your child is capable of great things. I recall my father-in-law's words after he saw his new granddaughter: "She's the prettiest baby ever." The pride was not surprising to me, but the words were. If it were my parents, they would have said "She's so smart; she lifted her head up in one week!" To them (true Tiger Parents), their children would be smart to do anything. The words you say to your child will make them believe that they can (or can't) do something, so make sure what you say reflects what you believe.
  2. Remember that it takes time. As Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book, Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of anything. There is no shortcut. Some of that time can be optimized with coaching. With two working parents, Mom and Dad had to make their hours with me count. It was not uncommon for us to be working together on math problems, practicing skills with games, and discussing why things worked the way they did. Eventually, I worked on my own, proud to be able to continue without them and stepping that much closer to becoming the "grown up" I wanted to be. Maria Montessori, who developed the Montessori system of education, realized that children at a very young age want to emulate the adults in their lives. Practical tasks such as setting the table, preparing a meal, and organizing a room give them a sense of self-worth as well as develop essential skills and intellectual growth. Use your time wisely to encourage the hard work needed to get your child to mastery levels.

  3. Share your passion. My sister's thoughts on being a Tiger Mother hints at another element required of a Tiger Parent: passion. My sister, as an author, admits she would be sorely disappointed if her son did not love to read. But, as my literacy education colleague noted, she's on the right track. While reading to a child helps with literacy, it is essential that the child sees you reading. This can be generalized to whatever you want your child to learn -- reading, math, sports, or figuring how things work). As a budding Tiger Parent, I would advise you to use your child's desire to emulate you while you can. My husband became a master chopper at the age of 3 because he wanted to help his father clear the grounds for their new house. His father armed him with a small hatchet, a short lesson in safety, and a small collection of trees that were his responsibility. The skills, success, and confidence learned from this experience stick with him today as an engineer.
  4. Don't be afraid to be sneaky. My sister-in-law questioned me recently on how my parents got me to work on math for hours on my own. I have to admit that I was tricked. Mom and Dad allowed me to stay up 15-20 minutes later than normal if I spent that time working with them on math. My sister-in-law exclaimed, "That's so sneaky!" followed promptly by the observation that her daughter would probably "fall for it." She reported recently that "Operation Sneaky Mom" worked with great success -- with her daughter willingly doing 20 minutes of mathematics. The secret is that not only does your child want to be like you, he or she wants to be with you. You are their rock star - so like any good groupie, your child savors every moment spent with you. Don't be afraid to use this hero-worship to "trick" your children into doing things that are beneficial. They will thank you later.
  5. Remember, it's not about tough parenting, it's about being a parent. You are an adult who has a world of skills, experience, and wisdom to share, in that order. In the early years, your job is to provide your child with skills. They can do well at math, reading, learning -- you can help them learn. Elementary school is not the time to share insecurities you may have -- like the time that you froze on a math test or when you couldn't figure out how to multiply. If you don't know it now, learn it now (you can do it!) and present it as a given to your child. Now is a time to be strong for your child; time to be a Tiger. When your child ages, and the teen years reveal shades of gray, you can share your experience and wisdom about school, struggles, and confidence as appropriate. But remember, sharing is to help your child, not help you feel better. When I was struggling in graduate school, Mom shared with me her own tough times, but more importantly, she shared how she grew from them. The stories' purpose was to help me work through my situation, not to make her feel better about her own self-worth. I am not her therapist; if anything, she is mine. She has always been a pillar for me to lean on when I need her, but not a crutch. This is the role of a Tiger Parent.

I'm not quite sure why the nation is inflamed with Amy Chua's book. It's just another parenting book, with a bit more drama in its presentation. But if you've read any Chinese classics, the literary tradition is based in hyperbole as evidenced by all Chinese movies ending in death (as my martial arts colleagues point out).
It's hard for those who haven't grown up with these exaggerations to understand the way a Chinese parent motivates their children. We are constantly bombarded with "extreme stories" of love and consequence: girls who dressed up as men to fight in their father's place (Mulan) and boys who studied to pass the exams and become city magistrates. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Jen realizes by the end that her own selfish desires brings sorrow and pain to those around her. The hyperbole is a way to say "Hey, wake up, this is serious!"I feel lucky that Mom and Dad were transparent about the fact that they were speaking from their own Chinese cultural background. Dad's favorite response to my whining about a seemingly strict decision was "We are not like other people." I certainly had my rebellious issues as a teen, but as an adult, a teacher and a pseudo-parent to my students, I realize now what they were really doing with the stories and the demands. I also appreciate the strength and clarity that had to be Tigers for my sister and me despite the struggles they faced themselves personally.

I think my nephew will turn out okay, despite the Tiger personalities in his family.
I have every confidence he will crawl; he's smart enough to figure it out. I will supplement his day care practice time with coaching on some of the essential elements of crawling (like keeping hands in front of his body, not flailing out like he's superman). I share my passion for "mobilating on all fours" by crawling around him. I exclaim loudly and pat him enthusiastically when he does a key essential piece on his own which motivates him to do it again. And I keep reminding him through body language and voice inflection that this is something that is just done. No angsting or wondering if it's possible, worthwhile, or fun. Crawling is to be done, not debated.So endeth the lesson.

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Jan 24, 2011

Invention of a Leg: A Love Story



I'm a bit bogged down with my January term lab course and a ridiculous amount of meetings, so I thought the best entry for this month may be a video. These are the slides from a presentation I gave to 4th graders at Cedar Park Elementary School in Minnesota.

Unfortunately, the video capture program I have decided to display a mirror image of me, so it looks like my voice is dubbed. Sorry if it's disconcerting.

Next time, I hope to post the video that Mechanical Engineering students took of me with the latest version. For their their senior project at the University of Minnesota, they refined the design so that it could fit comfortably in a regular shoe.

More information on the foot can be seen at Pongratz Engineering, LLC.

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