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?

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