Dec 5, 2012

SciGirls Pedal Power (with Yvonne as mentor) airs this weekend!

The SciGirls episode that Yvonne appears in as a mentor is airing this weekend!

This from the production staff:
Thanks so much for your involvement in the SciGirls show, Pedal Power, that features Angela, Olivia, Margaret and Rebecca along with their mentor Yvonne.  The episode airs this weekend in the Twin Cities area on Saturday Dec. 8th at 8am. 

If you can’t watch it live, the show will be up online after this weekend along with other SciGirl episodes at Check  it out and see what other SciGirls have been investigating! 

You can catch Pedal Power on the following day. Other SciGirl episodes will also air at this time on successive weekends.  
· TPT 2.1: Sat, Dec. 8, 2012---8:00am

Dec 3, 2012

Theory to Action: the Anatomy of a Computer Scam Call

Photo by David Ritter, via
There I was, peacefully enjoying a "Calgon, take me away" bath soak when my father-in-law knocked at the door. He said there was a computer guy on the phone who was saying all sorts of stuff about the computer, servers, etc. Could I talk with him?

He then opened the door, his eyes pressed closed, and handed me the phone, a pad, and a pencil. The next few minutes were spent with me figuring out what in the world was going on. When I finally realized that my father-in-law did not initiate the call, it became clear that it was a scam to get either access to his computer or to have him plant a program in his computer to send vital information to their system.

For my father-in-law, and all the older, less tech savvy folks who these people prey on, I'll give a run down of how you can know it's a scam... and why the scam is so very clever for those unfamiliar with computers.

 Just as with credit card or bank scams, your first red flag is that they call you, "unsolicited" calls as Microsoft's help page calls it. Computer companies, like banks, assure you that they will never initiate a call to you regarding your security. That means you have to be vigilant about checking for updates on current viruses yourself or find trusted sources for this information (like going to the McAfee or other antivirus program site). Going there yourself, getting the information yourself at a URL that you know is much like calling the bank yourself. You know that you are talking to the bank, not someone who says they are the bank.

With this situation, when I finally asked what company the caller was with, I knew there were problems when he said "Windows." Microsoft is the actual company, and when I asked "Microsoft?" He said, "Yes, Windows." I don't know if this is a loophole that they try to use in case they get caught (lawyer friends out there would need to let me know!), but he was very careful to avoid saying "I am with Microsoft." -- Although later, after I kept insisting that Windows was not a company, was he with Microsoft? he said, yes, we are Microsoft.

 The next red flag is when he started saying a bunch of technical sounding terms, and ended with "in short, you have a virus that is sending things to our server." I have taught about computers and networking and this sounded very fishy. Let me lay it out: He was trying to convince me that there was a program on the computer (this is all that virus is) that was sending information "out into the internet". His supposedly legal Microsoft server was getting messages from my computer. He said that if we could check the license ID on his server with the license ID on my computer and they matched, then there was an error because he was getting information from me without my knowing.

The whole idea of a license ID, of them receiving things from my computer which indicated a virus, and then the idea that they knew the phone number to call from that information... all smelled very fishy. The reality of the last item was the most suspicious. No system in your computer will automatically attach your phone number to the message. That's like saying that when you call someone, they will know your blood type. These are completely different systems that know nothing about each other.

He tried to tell me that the marketing department got the phone number and asked them (technical support) to call us. This has a whole lot of stink on it, too. First, why would the marketing (sales) department know whether we were sending out messages. And if, he actually got it reversed and they (tech support) was so concerned about our computer that they called marketing for the phone number attached to the license, this wouldn't happen: 1) there are confidentiality laws about phone numbers being distributed for other purposes, even within the same company and 2) technical support and marketing barely work well together on jobs they are supposed to work on together (really).

He wanted me to go to the computer and do what he instructed me to do in order to check for the license ID. I informed him that wasn't going to happen because I was currently in the bathtub (perhaps you should use this tact when you get a call like this), but if he gave me the instructions, I would write them down and get to them when I got out. He offered to call me back, but I said, no. I wanted to understand the situation before we wasted more time so giving me the instructions now would help.

First, he said, he wanted me to check to see if this was my license ID: 888DCA60FC0A11CFF0F00C04D7. He even went through using the phonetic alphabet to sound really sophisticated: "D as in Delta, C as in Charlie, A as in Alpha". He ended with, "If they match, we definitely have a virus and we can help you remove them in the registry."

 Alarms went off in my head when he talked about going into the registry. Entering things or even deleting some things from the registry is like giving someone the key to your house. The registry is the way that some programs are automatically run (it is a pain in the butt to those of us who grew up with DOS in the '80s). Never ever do anything with the registry unless you initiated the call and know the company on the other side of the line is legitimate.

After this event, I scanned the web and found that some of the scammers do one better: they get you to go to a particular website where they can get control of your computer, under the auspices of helping you out. Giving an unknown person control of your computer is like giving them your social security number. They can leave programs of their own (viruses simply because you don't want them there) that send all information or key entries to their system all the time. Identity theft is often their goal, as well as access to any other business you may do on the internet like banking, purchases with a credit card, etc.

Windows has the ability to open a DOS window and since it's a black screen and you type in commands that don't spell English words, people don't know what's going on. But unfortunately for this scammer, I do know DOS. In fact, I made my students use DOS so they got used to command line operating systems. It's not that hard, but you do have to know the commands. Here are the ones they have you do and what you are really doing:
  • They have you press the Windows key and R: This is the short cut key to Run a program (hence the R key)
  • They have you type "cmd" (they go through the whole phonetic alphabet again): This is short for "command prompt" which is the DOS window. It's what used to come up when you started computers in the 80s (instead of the Windows waving screen). 
  • In the black DOS window, they have you type in "assoc" (again, you will be "gently guided" through using the phoentic alphabet: alpha-sierra-sierra-oscar-charlie): This command simply shows you which program is used to run which file extension. For example, you will see ".doc" which will most likely be attached to Microsoft Word. This means that all files with the .doc extension will automatically be run with the Microsoft Word program when you double click on that file's icon. Other extensions you should see are .xls associated with MS Excel, .html associated with Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, or Chrome.
  • They have you scroll past all the other lines (which would have the extensions listed above) to look for the one "that starts with .zf and is the longest line there"): They want you to find the extension .zfsendtotarget because instead of a readable name, it is, you guessed it, that string of numbers and letters they called a "license ID". It, of course, isn't. It's the program to unzip compressed files, which is common to almost all Microsoft-based computers.
So, after writing this all down, he told me to call back when I was out of the tub at 302-482-8070. Really? I asked. This is not a 1-800 number? No, he replied. I later looked up this number and found it to be the US number for Itchy Global Inc (I didn't want to call it) which was supposedly located in Panama. Ask for "Kevin Miller" he said  or any of the engineers here. Oh, I was livid... here they go giving engineers a bad name...

Nov 20, 2012

Girls in Engineering: Contributing to the Cause

Photo by H├ęctor Landaeta, via
My friends are very connected. They are my temperature gauge on "the buzz". So when I got 10 messages in the last 3 days about Goldie Blox I figured it was time to blog about getting girls into engineering.

Earlier in the summer, I had heard about another project, Roominate, which leveraged girls' creative bent with dollhouses to introduce them to engineering. This project, like the Goldie Blox one, also hit its Kickstarter goal in a short period of time. It is clear that there are a lot of people out there -- men, women, parents, grandparents -- who want to "contribute to the cause" of making engineering more accessible to girls.

I'm personally amazed to see more people interested in the idea of engineering toys for girls. I had always liked building Barbie's Dream House more than actually playing with Barbie in the Dream House. I have come to accept that I'm a weirdo, but based on these toy ideas and the response supporting them, maybe I'm a weirdo among many.

When my college roommate and I edited our book, She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect, we realized that engineering wasn't going to really get into the mainstream of career choices until more people knew about it. We had imagined media being the pathway for that (think "LA Engineer"), or, we jokingly suggested, teaching engineering in elementary school. When engineers were sung about as "People in Your Neighborhood" then we might have a chance of getting more people, especially girls, into engineering.

So, back in the early 90's that all seemed like a pipe dream. But today, look what's happened:
All these are great for the first few phases of the making of an engineer:

PHASE 1: Engagement and Attachment
  • This is the initial hook for children. These new toys are attempts to engage girls, for example. If the girls play with them for hours, want to play with them with friends, etc. then an attachment has been formed. This is so important for self-motivation to learn and excel in a field.
PHASE 2: Introduction to Foundations
  • While free play is an important part of early childhood development, if that play can also introduce foundational experiences, that will be invaluable for future education in the field. When I prepare engineers to teach students today, I have to remind them that not all the students (especially if they come from a different cultural, economic, or social background) will have the same experiences that they create their "common sense." For example, I have to remind them that see-saws are virtually eliminated from playgrounds due to safety issues (my first visceral understanding of levers). Many students have not ridden bikes and only 5% of the population drives stick shift, so the idea of high and low gears may be completely foreign. 
  • It used to be that women suffered from assumptions engineering professors made like "You have seen this when you rebuilt your engine" but now, with our largely virtual and technically complicated world, even boys are not having these basic experiences with materials, simple machines, and mechanisms.
PHASE 3. Directed Instruction
  • Once children enter school, engaged in engineering and equipped with the foundations, it is still not a slam-dunk. As I said at my 20th college reunion, "Little kids -- boys and girls -- are natural scientists and engineers. They love figuring out things; they're asking 'why' all the time... and then we educate it out of them." The power of schools and teachers to influence children toward or away from engineering was evident to me when I taught engineering to teachers. With my young son, I have a vested interest in making sure he has playmates who have similar exposure and opportunity as he has from his engineering parents. It's no wonder I was convinced to cut my maternity leave short to promote STEM, particularly engineering, professional development with elementary schools across the nation.
PHASE 4. Extension and Connection Challenges
  • But direct instruction is only the beginning. Each concept is foundational because it can be applied to many other problems and situations. But children need time to practice with that. For better or for worse, I have found that boys tend to do this extension of knowledge on their own, but girls need a bit more guidance to go outside of the explicit instruction. The good news is that once they are givein permission to extend beyond the given problem, and they are shown guidelines on how to use the new knowledge in different situations, they excel. This is the strategy I used in the Bringing STEM to Light curriculum and when teaching the concepts of engineering to teachers. The lessons include ways the new knowledge and skills can be applied to a variety of different novel projects. For example, by simply learning about forces and materials, students can solve the challenges of the egg drop, inexpensive furniture, and spaghetti bridges.
PHASE 5. Culture Shift
  • Changes in early childhood and educational experiences are important in getting girls into engineering, but sadly, not enough. Without changes in culture, the situation just becomes a bait-and-switch: Girls exit high school prepared and excited about becoming engineers but college and the profession often are still operating as they did in the 60's and 70's: competitive, boys' clubs, making "cool" but not necessarily useful or responsible products. 
  • Companies need to reimagine what a successful, fertile, creative environment looks like. Will they really be able to handle the fact that their employees (men and women) will have multifaceted lives? Will they see the family side as an asset not as a distraction? (I can tell you that I get most of my processing done in the wee hours just after my son has fed and before I get myself settled down the sleep. Mommy Brain is apparently smarter than people realize.)
  • Schools need to realize that the most successful in industry can collaborate, share, and support each other in learning. And those skills, along with project management and team management must be taught -- not with generic worksheets with sketchy circles with bullets which feel like busywork, not by throwing students together and having them "figure it out". 
  • Modeling needs to be done: Show students what project management looks like by first managing them, then give them more responsibility in that process with subsequent projects. I like to use movies to illustrate team dynamics (gone right and gone wrong) such as Mission: Impossible, The Dirty Dozen, and even Sister Act). Unfortunately many engineering professors have no industrial experience, so don't actually know how to model the required processes or handle the complications presented by people interactions. Universities need to value work experience as much as educational level when selecting and promoting those who will teach our future engineers.
  • The student themselves, and in this case, I mean the stereotypical woman/girl, has to be brave and try out some stereotypical male behavior. I don't mean that they have to stop bathing or be socially awkward or inconsiderate. They need to treat themselves to a little bit of obsession about their project and be willing to "walk into the abyss". Girls tend to be more cautious and this sometimes is at odds with success in engineering:
  • Obsessing refers to spending time on their passion and putting some other things aside for a while. Students of mine often tell me during check in times near the deadline that they are dreaming about their projects. They keep thinking of different ways to fix, improve, or develop their products. While I don't recommend obsession as a standard way of living, I do tell them that this time in school, this class in particular, is a precious time for them to obsess about something and see how far they can go when they really throw all their efforts into it. They always emerge feeling good about what they have accomplished and know that they "have what it takes" inside them to turn their ideas into reality. 
  • Regarding the abyss, engineering is done when you make new solutions to problems. That means that the solution doesn't already exist, there is no answer key, and you have to try it out to see if it works. It's a scary thing for those who like neat known answers, who can ask "an adult", "Is this right?" before they even try it out for themselves. When students ask me that, unless it defies the laws of physics, I say, well, try it and we'll see. They usually throw me a doubtful look, wondering if I'm just holding out on it. Engineering has taught me what definitely won't work (that laws of physics thing), and what has a good chance of working... but it doesn't give me clairvoyance to know without any prototype testing. The proof is really in the pudding and you have to have the guts to be able to "throw the switch" and see what transpires.
Girls in engineering: Not a simple solution, solved by a single product, but an interesting problem. And isn't problem solving what engineering is all about?

Related links:

Sep 30, 2012

The ASVAB and Me: A Clue to Widening the Pool

This is the fourth and last installment specifically inspired from my visit to the USS Carl Vinson. A lot has happened in a year: I welcomed my son into the world and was convinced to downshift my maternity time to become interim Executive Director of St. Catherine University's National Center for STEM Elementary Education. This post is a result of my trying to shift from teaching individuals to making larger systemic changes. 

It's hard to believe that it is a year since I was on the Navy aircraft carrier. Since then, the Navy and the military in general have been on my mind (could that have been their master plan for providing such an amazing experience to a civilian??). I see connections to them everywhere now. -- It's like when I bought a new car: Suddenly, I saw so many more more people driving Saturns.

I find myself realizing I have many friends who served, both as volunteer enlisted or after attending military academies. I recently reconnected with old family friends who knew me ever since I boldly knocked on their apartment door at the age of 3. They currently teach at West Point Military Academy faculty and reminded me that the Army is also interested in talented STEM students.

In light of all these connections, I recall my own introduction to the military's interest in talented students: While a high school junior, I was shuffled into the cafetorium to take the Armed Services Vocational Assessment Battery (ASVAB). As I took the reading comprehension and mathematics portions of the test, I thought it was an achievement test or an SAT-like test.

But then there was a portion with 10 questions, asking whether a 10-digit number was in a list of about 50 numbers in a ridiculously short period of time. I was puzzled. Unlike any other test I had taken, which had obvious connections to school classes, there was no class that required this kind of performance.

Then there were portions asking about shop tools, bridges, and gears. I plugged away, answering them as best I could before the time was up. During one of the breaks, my girlfriends and I chatted briefly. The technology-based questions seemed pretty straightforward to me, almost simple at times, but among my friends, I was the only one who apparently thought so. "I was just guessing" more than one of them said about these mechanical-based quesitons. Gosh, I wondered, what did I do wrong? The questions they griped about seemed obvious to me.

They weren't the only ones... my college roommate who was (and still is) quite brilliant had difficulties. She had found herself randomly guessing at the mechanical questions. It's no wonder she became an electrical engineer (which she said was mainly math) and a computer science expert (which she said was mainly logic), and felt herself lucky that she never had to take a class like mechanics of solids. Trusses, static forces, and schematics of bending beams unnerved her. She far preferred the mathematically based circuit analysis and algorithmic designs of her discipline. This, she felt, school had prepared her for.

I was puzzled at why mechanical questions seemed so easy to me and so hard to my very intelligent friends.  Later, I learned from a guest speaker that the entire ASVAB was developed over the years by the military to determine the potential of an individual. He, for example, took the test and somehow, the military determined he would be good at languages, even though he only knew his native tongue at the time. But, he was shuffled along that path, taking language classes and miraculously picking them up. I think he learned 3-4 languages by the time we met him. In any case, it seemed that the writers of the ASVAB knew what they were doing.

Throughout the years, it did seem that the ASVAB could identify people who could immediately jump into particular areas of military interest, but for the language prediction, it really only identified who had the experience, not necessarily the potential. The test correctly identified that, at least intellectually, I had what they wanted.  I became a mechanical engineer, and as a colonel once told me, "We LOVE engineers."

Still, the test seemed to be good at evaluating current knowledge and skills. Thus, when I was looking for questions to evaluate students in my "engineering for everyone" course, now titled "Engineering in Your World", I immediately thought of the ASVAB. It is one of the only standardized tests for engineering concepts that doesn't require higher level math like calculus. We now use questions similar to the mechanical aptitude and electronics ones in our pre- and post-tests.

Using these questions in evaluation for almost 10 years now underlined some interesting things about our  students' potential, that is the capacity to learn and succeed in a certain area (Recall that all my students at St. Kate's are women):
  • Success with Tools questions required exposure: Seems logical when you say it out loud. The students who had previous experience with tools did better in this section than those who did not. What did we do to tackle this? We required a toolkit with the most basic tools, taught students how to use them as part of our simple machines unit, and gave them projects that encouraged them to use their new-found skills.
  • Mechanical understanding improved with hands-on experience: When we had the women play with gears, figure out how mechanical toys worked, and create LED circuits, they answered related questions correctly more often and felt more confident about their answers. If they didn't know the answer to a novel question, they were often more able to narrow the choices down to two.
  • Standard engineering skills improved with specific instruction: Spatial rotation was difficult for many of the women to learn, and the practice of interpreting engineering drawings as a result was also challenging since it essentially documents an unfolded viewing box that has the objects projections on each face. Most of the modern technical drawing books leaped directly into CAD. Even the books that were used when I was in school spent most of their time on drawing, not on translating 3D to 2D. I had to go to a technical drawing book from the 1940s (WWII era) to find exercises that helped build drawing ability with physical models. We also developed clear plexiglass boxes that students actually put objects into. They then traced the shapes in each face of the box and unfolded the box to get the engineering drawing, laid out correctly. This explicit instruction of how the 2D drawing was created from a 3D world improved students performance on these types of questions.
  • Lack of visual literacy made the accuracy of Mechanical Aptitude questions questionable: While students were able to speak more intelligently, design more reliably, and troubleshoot more effectively after the above instruction, we found that most still struggled with the written test questions. When we probed further by having them indicate their confidence in their answers, we discovered that most had no idea what the questions were actually asking. The ability to read a question, with a diagram (common for mechanical aptitude questions) is a spatial literacy skill which we found needed to be taught as well. Without this ability, the students  missed visual clues such as the arrows indicating direction of motion and circles drawn within circles representing  pulleys that shared the same shaft. This was probably the problem my high school girlfriends had when they said they had to randomly guess at answers.
This last bullet is a vital clue to how we can improve the assessment of student potential, particularly from underrepresented populations who may not share the experiences required to understand "standard" questions. An analogy to this would be a child who has seen cats, maybe even raised cats. As a result, this child, in reality,  knows a lot about cats. However, if she doesn't know that the letters c-a-t represent the familiar furry creature, she will not do well on a written test because she doesn't understand what the question is asking.

Combining research, formative assessment results, and creative instruction is what I learned while teaching STEM with my education colleagues at the National Center for STEM Elementary Education. When I worked with teachers, I share the genesis of these findings and help them be aware of how to turn up their sensors to their student learning. Together, we figure out creative instructional activities that will engage their students while leveraging the teachers' individual specialties, talents, and interests.

National security is one reason government agencies like the military are interested in improving STEM education of our young folks. Unlike industry, they cannot import talent since they often have citizen requirements. Thus, if they want to widen the pool of talent, they must work with the home-grown population. While it is important to improve STEM education starting in the early years, a short term solution of improving students' ability to answer assessments accurately may give a faster return on investment for those currently in the pipeline.

Want to learn more about encouraging females in STEM or STEM in general? Contact Yvonne at Engineer's Playground.

Jul 11, 2012

It's my thing: A new approach to girls and STEM

For those who follow me regularly, you may have noticed decline in post frequency. My apologies! If you were able to see me in person, you would know why... I'm currently in my last month of pregnancy. Needless to say, I've been a bit busy.
on tpt's SciGirls

We are expecting a little boy (or so they tell me). My husband and I are very happy, but a part of me was a bit dismayed when I heard the news, "Shucks, there goes a practical use of my expertise on how to get girls interested in STEM."

Well, just because I have a boy coming into the world (cursed or blessed by having two parents who are engineers and total science geeks), doesn't mean that I have to abandon my strong interest in females in STEM. And thank goodness! There are some interesting studies coming out that pique my engineering mind into formulating ways to use them to create meaningful, effective, inclusive curriculum.


One that caught my eye recently was My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls which found that middle school girls were actually discouraged from STEM areas if the role model presented was too feminine. Practically speaking, this means that having a drop-dead gorgeous, highly-fashioned woman physicist might actually drive girls away from STEM rather than send the message that they can do it. The thoughts are that being stunningly feminine and good at STEM seem so unattainable that girls give up completely.

This may explain my own issues as a teen with Marie Curie and Lillian Moller Gilbreth. When I was younger, my parents, the physicist and the chemist, gave me biographies about Marie Curie, a physicist and chemist, who used education as a way to rebel against the tyranny of Russian Empire. When I was in 6th grade, I read a chapter from Cheaper by the Dozen, which introduced me to Lillian Moller Gilbreth, a pioneer in industrial engineering, her husband Frank, and their bevy of children. The second book, Belles on Their Toes underlined how this woman engineer was also womanly: kind mother, career woman, creative entrepreneur. 

As I headed into the 80's, I had a sense that a woman could have it all. But then, in my teen years I realized, I didn't see any more role models. This was the day of the "draw a scientist" test when people were hard-pressed to come up with any scientist who wasn't male. This dearth of other role models depressed me: How come the only models I saw were these two? These were what I had to live up to? I felt depressed at the prospect, like if you gave a young boy scientist Albert Einstein as his only role model. These were top women: Marie Curie had two Nobel prizes, plus a daughter who went into chemistry and also won a Nobel prize. Lillian Gilbreth was (later) a single mother and raised 11 children and became a professor at Purdue University as a leader in her field. Success seemed unattainable if I had only these two women to look up to. Thank goodness I had my mother as well. Brilliant herself, there was a lot of her that was more realistic and down-to-earth because I knew her; she seemed more reasonable a role model.

In light of this study, it's not surprising that the European Commissions' attempt to jumpstart girls' interest in STEM with "Science: It's a Girl Thing" met with controversy. The question became: Does simply merging one stereotype (glasses-clad male scientist) with another (curvy clothed, high-heeled, made-up girls) and adding a hip soundtrack make STEM more appealing to girls? 

The disappointment of the critics seemed to arise more from the fact that the video did little to present why science (or STEM in general) would be appealing to girls. This communication aspect is at the heart of the latest study from the Girl Scouts, Generation STEM: What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The gist is that despite the press that girls aren't choosing to study STEM, girls actually are interested in STEM if one presents STEM as how things work, solving puzzles and problems, and doing hands-on science projects.

The trick of being a teacher or parent of girls is not just to keep the door to STEM open, but to also allow them to explore their full potential. I have always felt that STEM, particularly engineering, was inherently appealing to women, if you actually showed them what it really was all about.

In 2002, when I first developed the Makin' and Breakin': Engineering in Your World course at St. Kate's, an education colleague told me that her husband, an engineer, complained that women weren't going into engineering. His ultimate reasoning was based on the idea that women weren't interested in the same thing that men were: being involved in the stereotypical pursuit of the superlative -- the faster, larger, more powerful devices. My approach leveraged the idea that women are inherently practical. My sister-in-law illustrated this nicely when her boys were musing over the characteristics of their ideal car: One boy wanted a fast car, another a device-heavy RV for luxury while camping. Her husband wanted something with power and style. She cited "enough cup holders and nothing breaking down." They responded, "Oh, don't be such a mom!" But what is engineering, but making reliable, useful devices that fill a need of society?
Here are some tips I can offer about what you can do now  for your girl to set the stage for later success:
  • 1. Define what STEM is in current language. Talk about STEM in terms of their natural tendencies. Consider "Are you clever, creative, resourceful like Katniss in The Hunger Games or Violet in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events?" (The National Academy of Engineering's Changing the Conversation broke the traditional messaging strategy which waxed on about "being smart and working hard.")
  • 2. Present STEM in context of goals she cares about. Girls have broad interests, so show them how STEM meshes with or enhances their current interests or passions. (The Girl Scout study showed that girls are drawn to careers where they can help people, make a difference in the world, and allow them to make a contribution through their ability to think.)
    • Women role models can be one way to do this: Lillian Moller Gilbreth as a psychologist who later became an industrial engineer and designed the efficient kitchen, including devices such as the step-garbage can (see, you don't have to start in engineering to get into it later); Stephanie Kwolek as a chemist who was interested in becoming a fashion designer as a girl and later invented Kevlar (bulletproof) material; Grace Hopper a mathematics major who used her experience in playing basketball in school to develop the computer compiler while she served in the Navy during WWII (the compiler allows us to use English words to program computers, not numbers, as was done in the early days). 
  • 3. Teach that smartness is learned, not inherited. Resilience is needed for success in general and success in STEM is no different, especially considering the field is laden with gender stereotyped challenges. Talk about intelligence and skills in STEM as the result of study and hard work, not as a gene or inborn ability. Athletics are a great way to develop this way of thinking; it's no surprise to me that many of my STEM students are involved with a sport. (Micheal Jordan has some excellent quotations on how he became successful through hard work, not inborn talent.)
  • 4. Remind her that she was a girl from the beginning-- and always will be. In other words, your girl will not become less of a girl because she does something that other girls don't do (or that the boys may do). Today's society seems to accept that if a girl likes to do sports, she's still a girl, just one who likes to do sports. Perpetuate a similar message around STEM. This is why I made the "This is what an engineer looks like" t-shirts; I was tired of people thinking I wasn't an engineer because I also wore women's clothing. 
  • 5. Help her define her signature self. Being a woman in STEM doesn't mean giving up being "feminine". Ultra feminine may be detrimental (i.e., a total fashion model) but a touch of the feminine can be part of an individual woman's identity, and a signature style can help a girl feel special and unique. Consider these examples:
    • Annie Oakley designed her signature her athletic yet girlish fringed skirt.
    • Amelia Earhart always wore a signature silk aviator scarf, which was a practical garment in the historical open cockpit days, but gave her a flair of elegance in the 1920's
    • My engineering girlfriends have had their signature pocket watches and vests, high heeled pumps, stylish purses. I personally have worn short skirts and bolero jackets under my dark colored factory coveralls. With age, I have changed my signature piece to necklaces made of natural materials such as stones, metal, or carved wood.
You don't have to wait for them to apply to college to see if you are successful. The real clues about change in attitude and interest are seen in the way your girl does engineering (science, or STEM) in her everyday life. If your girl has no qualms about learning the STEM she needs to make her visions a reality, you've done a good job. For example, with my students, I have seen education, public health, and business majors learn and leverage their engineering skill, scientific knowledge, and mathematical quantification to follow their whimsy to create:
  • A hydraulic machine to illustrate the story of Prometheus' punishment; 
  • A foot-powered breast pump because of their interest in women's issues; 
  • A doorbell for a dog that wants to be let out;
  • A dollhouse with a working elevator and electric lights for their daughters to play with
Moreover, if your girls still do their thing while doing STEM, you know you have helped them see that STEM is a part of their girl identity, not a challenge to it. I saw this when:
  • My students bring their music to play during "work time" 
  • Teams go on field trips to the Chuck E. Cheese for ideas on what electro-mechanical arcade game to engineer
  • Students chatted about life, strife, and other connecting-conversational topics while they sawed, soldered, and experimented. Engineering and their everyday lives meshed at these magical times in class.
The 80's garage engineering entrepreneur converted the 60's thick glasses and necktie stereotypical engineers of the Sputnik era into a new image. Now, in 2000's, it's time for an image overhaul which needs to come the generation itself, including the female half of the population.

In May, I was fortunate enough to serve as a mentor for an engineering project on tpt's SciGirls show that will air sometime during the 2012-13 season. I'm hoping that my pregnant self (very womanly, but not very fashionably feminine) does not deter their middle school girl audience from feeling that STEM is within their grasp. The producers were thrilled at my physical state, citing that they wanted to show how women in STEM came from all walks and stages of life.

While the girls engineered their bicycle-powered ice cream maker (which even impressed the product design engineers I work with), I was able to see that they were defining a new image for an engineer: Passionate, bubbly, interested, curious, creative, persistent, collaborative -- and a bit musical. The SciGirls composed and sang songs all the time they worked on their project. With three of them in their school musical, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised!

I'm hopeful that society will be able to flex with this new generation of STEM professionals just at it did in the 80's. And with this new image, I hope that girls see that STEM is bigger than "a girl thing" that allows high-heels and helicopters or cosmetics and chemistry. I hope that they see that STEM can be each girl's "own thing." That ownership is what is needed to get in, get through, and persist in the most influential and exciting fields in today's modern world.

Help your girl by creating an environment that develops the needed skills, supports the required knowledge, and encourages the essential dispositions for success. Help her be able to say: "STEM -- it's my thing."

Related links:
Want to learn more about girls in STEM or STEM in general? Contact Yvonne at Engineer's Playground. 

Apr 12, 2012

Start seeing engineers (Navy Notes 3)

I recently read the results of Intel's recent Survey of Teens' Perceptions of Engineering (Dec 2011) hoping to get a topic that would give me a short break from the Navy Notes. As you may recall, I had a great trip in September on the USS Carl Vinson where I learned about the challenges faced by the personnel and how important STEM, particularly engineers was to them. The findings set my mind on a path with a surprising ending:

The survey of over 1000 teens who had computer access showed that they had a generally positive view of engineering, but felt that they were largely unfamiliar with what it really was. When asked what would grab their interest the most (i.e., encourage them to think about engineering as a career), 74% said they would pursue it if it seemed interesting. Over 50% reported that factors like a high salary, having a positive impact on society, and having a variety of job opportunities would be appealing. In fact, nearly half of them said that if they had more exposure to engineering, they would reconsider engineering as a career.

This made me think of a recent talk I heard at The Works museumIoannis Miaoulis, president of Boston Science Museum, got real shock value from the audience when he declared that "the only engineer on prime time TV is Homer Simpson."

Sadly, I have to point out that Mr. Miaoulis is wrong. He obvious hasn't watched a lot of TV -- and he is misrepresenting engineers. First, Homer Simpson is not an engineer. He is a nuclear plant technician, a very respectable field (and very important), but not an engineer. His role is to keep the technology running properly and safely -- something that we trust our technicians to do. They must know about the science and math behind the technology they work intimately with, but they do not have the education to modify the system in significant ways as an engineer would.

Next, I can count at least 10 engineers who have been on television since the 1960s. The real problem is that like good engineering, good engineers fade into the background unless they are malfunctioning (i.e., are the "evil scientist/engineer"). When they are doing a good job, taking on a variety of interesting tasks, and hey, having a positive impact on society, they become invisible. It took a while for even me (ultra-sensitive engineer) to realize they were engineers.

Want to see them with me?


These are the engineers that many engineers ("geeks") think of. They work for "the Federation" (i.e., they are government employees) and their influence extends out into the universe. Here's what I see in each and how long they have run:

1. Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, Star Trek  1966-1969 (3 years)
    I never really watched the original Star Trek until college (I know, I'm not a good stereotypical engineer), but I found Scotty adorable. Engineers of his caliber and personality are a joy to work with -- and they get things done!

2.Geordi La Forge, Star Trek: The Next Generation  1987-1994 (7 years)
    I was surprised when LeVar Burton, whom I had known from the children's television show, Reading Rainbow, took on this role. But what a job he did: My husband calls him "the perfect engineer." I love the fact that he is able to be an engineer because of engineering: He wears an ocular prosthetic that allows him to see, and sometimes see things others cannot.

3. B'Elanna Torres, Star Trek: Voyager  1995-2001 (6 years)
   I have only started watching this series (yes, I'm again losing geek points) but I find it fun that the engineer is a female (oh, and part Klingon which I guess gives her some of the hutzpah that many women engineers I know have). Eventually, I hear she becomes wife and mother as well. Talk about a very interesting life with a variety of tasks.

4. Charles "Trip" Tucker III, Star Trek: Enterprise 2001-2005 (4 years)
   I am new to this show as well, but within the first few episodes, this cowboy engineer shows strength of character in difficult situations from surviving desert conditions to being stranded on an exploration pod to being -- get this -- the first human male to become pregnant.


These engineers are somewhat stereotypical: white, male, not quite muscular, and well, shall we say more seductive in their own minds than in real life. But, they have their charm!

5. Seamus Zelazny Harper, Andromeda  2000-2005 (5 years)
   This other Gene Roddenberry inspired space series has the engineer being a resourceful fellow in desperate times. He is pessimistic at times but can be appeased with a technical challenge that will let him make something he finds cool.

6. Howard Wolowitz, The Big Bang Theory  2007-present (5 years and counting)
   Perhaps not the role model for engineers, but with his own sense of reality (and awesomeness) he shows himself to be the master of humor. As an aerospace engineer, he often tries to lure women to his lab with promises of working with NASA rover equipment somewhere in space.


These are the engineers that are the ones that I like the best because they seem like whole people, not just a position on a ship or a stereotypical personality. However, because they seemed so human, it took me a while to realize that they actually were engineers!

7. Steven Douglas, My Three Sons 1960-1965 (5 years)
   Most people know this as yet another "father knows best" series reminiscent of the 1950's shows. However, as I watched reruns, I realized that Mr. Douglas was an aeronautical engineer. The 60's was a golden time for this type of engineer. Engineers were considered great "catches" for women: stable jobs, high salary, and reliable personalities.

8. Barney Collier, Mission: Impossible 1966-1973 (6 years)
   Barney is one of the coolest members of the Mission Impossible secret agent team. I mean, he does what everyone else does and he designs all the devices and props that are key to their subterfuge. It was apparently controversial for some that he was African American, but interestingly, he was able to fit in everywhere. Apparently, Barney had his start in the Navy before he went on to become an entrepreneur with his own electronics company. Talk about job opportunities!

9. Joe DuBois, Medium  2005-2011 (6 years)
   I actually find the main character (the medium) a bit annoying. I guess my engineering side can't handle her erratic logic and emotion as characterized in the show. However, her husband, an aerospace engineer, is a pillar of strength. Apparently, the show is based on a real life couple, and lo, the husband really is an engineer, not an interesting literary element, and apparently is the rational supportive touch stone in the relationship.

10. Timothy McGee, NCIS  2003-present (9 years and counting)
   It took me a few watches to realize that Timothy McGee has an engineer education (biomedical) in addition to a degree in computer forensics. A very special agent of the Naval Crime Investigative Services, he not only does a variety of interesting tasks which often involve national security, he has creative talents which land him a best-selling mystery. 

So, 10 engineers who have been or are still on prime time TV. And hey, two of the four had their start with the Navy... Go Navy!

Products from Engineer's Playground: Start seeing engineers -- and engineering...

Related links:

Mar 12, 2012

2012 updates-to-date

Holy cow! Where did the year go? It's already mid-March in a brand new year.

Been busy, happy to say, working on things are coming forward in the future. Here's a sneak peek:

The Swim/SCUBA foot
  • In January, we went to Bonaire, off the coast of Venezuela to do some filming in the clear blue water. The full display of foot features will come soon, but I want to share some raw footage that show the flexibility and ease of use of the foot.

Walk to swim (and back again)

Jump in and swim away

And now with SCUBA gear...

And this just in... beach-to-swim and back again

Lasers in the classroom curriculum
  • In partnership with LASER Classroom, I wrote a sample of curriculum using LASER Blox, stackable lasers that can be toggled for experiments in the classroom. We are starting with high school (since that's where light and physics are normally taught), but I know elementary and middle school teachers could see ways to modify them for their classrooms! The full volume 1 will be completed in Fall of this year, but you can preview the sample now -- and for free. The activities are specially designed to engage those students who normally don't have an interest in physics by hooking them with other areas of interest like art, civics, life science, and mathematics. LASER Classroom will also give coupons to those who give feedback.... Take a peek:
ME Robots: Mechanical Engineering Robots training workshops (in MN)
  • Those in the Twin Cities area might be interested in the training workshops that St. Kate's will be holding in May, Jun, and August. This is based on curriculum I helped St. Kate's and the Girl Scouts develop since 2003; it's been been well-tested (and received)! My colleagues in education run the workshops, and the curriculum will be available for purchase from St. Catherine University's National Center for STEM Elementary Education website ( ) soon.
  • Here's a peek at the curriculum:
  • And here's how you register for the workshops:
 Next on the Docket: 10 ways to get kids excited about engineering
  • I will be presenting at The Works for one of their events, 10 ways to get kids excited about engineering. I hope it will be highly interactive so real, meaningful ideas and advice pertinent to your child(ren) can be shared. 
  • For information and registration:
 ... always so much to do and learn!

I promise to write sooner in the future!