Getting girls hooked on engineering
Engineers offer tips to steer young women into STEM careers
The light-up dance floor Judy Gilmore built for her twin daughters is a fine feat of engineering.
She soldered the circuit board herself. She put in hundreds of LEDs and got them to blink in patterns. And she nailed the details, even using paper cones to make sure the light from each little bulb had the same size, shape and brilliance as the others.
But that's not why she likes it. She likes it because it showed her daughters and their friends that a mom can also be an engineer.
“The dance floor was a hit, and the kids know that a woman made it,” said Gilmore, an electrical engineer at Raytheon, recalling the time she brought it to a fundraiser for her local mothers-of-twins club and showed the kids what was inside. “Whether or not they appreciated the technical design of it I couldn’t say, but at least they know that it was my work, and I got to share it with them.”
Women account for only about 15 percent of U.S. engineers and architects, and Raytheon encourages young girls to study science, technology, engineering and math as part of the company’s larger math-and-science education initiative, which includes the opening of high-tech Centers of Innovation at Boys & Girls Clubs and support of numerous local programs from math tutoring to coaching robotics teams.
As part of that effort, Raytheon.com asked several of the company’s engineers how they try to steer girls into the field – and how they got into it themselves. Here's their advice:
Chaunteal Rasmussen’s path to a high-tech career started during her childhood in Tucson, Arizona, where she would catch lizards in the yard and build treehouses with her friends.
Studying the lizards sharpened her powers of observation. Hammering together forts and clambering up trees taught her about physics. Then there was problem-solving; whenever the group built a fort, they needed somewhere to sit.
“We would gather a bunch of pine needles, put a blanket over them and make it into a workable couch,” said Rasmussen, an information systems technologist at Raytheon.
Developing those skills so early was crucial, Rasmussen said.
"Exploring your surroundings, thinking outside the box and challenging barriers can be foundations to a future in STEM," she said. "Without having that kind of background, I wouldn't be able to do things where I have to problem-solve or research. Examining items in the yard, creating something from nothing and looking at things from a different perspective were all very helpful."
Build their confidence
All children need encouragement. But when it comes to math and science, girls need it more, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The researchers found girls are often anxious about math and more likely than boys to doubt their own abilities – even when they perform as well or better in math science.
That lack of confidence can hinder success in math and science, fields that require students to persevere through trial and error, said Raytheon systems engineer Kate Maxwell.
“Math and science can be challenging, but that challenge is part of the process, and hopefully part of the fun” said Maxwell, whose interest in engineering started with a computer programming class in high school. “We try something, perhaps we fail, and then we try again. That’s what the scientific process is, and with it comes understanding and innovation.”
Go to the movies
Seek out movies and TV shows that show how important the work of mathematicians and scientists is, engineers said.
For example, schools around the United States are sending students by the busload to see “Hidden Figures,” the acclaimed biographical drama that pays tribute to three mathematicians – all black women – whose work helped put John Glenn into orbit in an era of extreme sexism and segregation. Raytheon rented a theater in Boston to screen the film for local students.
Many Raytheon employees went to see the movie on their own. Gilmore took her daughters, Elizabeth and Penny, then asked them how they liked it.
“That movie inspired me,” Penny said.
To do what? Her mom asked.
“To be awesome.”
Sign up for STEM programs
Rasmussen first learned to love science in her back yard, but what really got her hooked was the MISS Adventures Camp, a summer program for middle-school girls at the University of Arizona. They learned ways to apply science – from building foam gliders to learning the chemistry that causes Diet Coke to rocket out of the bottle when you drop in a couple of Mentos.
Today, Rasmussen is helping run that camp – now called Applied Career Exploration in Science, or ACES. She said she wants to do for other girls – particularly those who live below the poverty line – what her mentors did for her.
“When you grow up on the southern end of Tucson, it can be challenging to understand what you can do when you grow up. Resources can be limited, and not everyone knows how you can get to college or in a STEM field.” she said. “Just having people who actually care enough to give you those opportunities is amazing and inspiring.”
introduce them to role models
Valerie Gordeski was destined to become an engineer. Her mom, also an engineer, all but guaranteed that back in the 1980s, when she would take her daughter to work and let her play with perforated tape – an early form of data storage for the massive mainframe computers many businesses used.
“To me, that was really cool,” said Gordeski, now a Raytheon electrical engineer.
Many engineers follow their parents into the profession. But it doesn’t take an engineer to raise an engineer, Gordeski said.
“Regardless of profession, if a parent wants that emphasis for their kids, they can take them places to meet those role models,” she said, specifically recommending high school robotics competitions and math-and-science events at local libraries. “There’s a wealth of events that are free. You just need to look for them.”
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