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 built 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.

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