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Changing and expanding focus
Biomedical, nuclear, chemical, materials. Molecular, environmental, structural, computer. Electronic, thermodynamics, systems, aerospace. Agricultural, nano, neural, petroleum, marine ….What do these words have in common? These are all areas of engineering. Engineering can be defined as the application of science to the conversion of nature’s resources to the uses of humankind. The U.S. Engineers Council for Professional Development defines it as “the creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, manufacturing processes, or works utilizing them singly or in combination.” The words engine and ingenious are derived from the same Latin root, ingenerare, which means “to create.”
In the early history of engineering, most projects focused on civil improvements such as the Persian canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea (c. 151 BC), Roman roads stretching from England to Egypt (c. 100), and the Inca empire’s approximate 25,000 miles of well-serviced roads designed for caravans of llamas (c. 1500). In our modern era, engineers still build bridges, roads, and structures, but now they also create prosthetic limbs for wounded warriors, land robots on Mars, and develop remote surgical robots for less invasive medical procedures. NASA engineers even tested the Brazuca soccer ball developed by Adidas for this year’s FIFA soccer World Cup tournament to explore its aerodynamic properties!
Engineering is generally thought of as a “masculine” profession. According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, since the late 1990s women have earned about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees and half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees. Men earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer sciences, and physics while more women earn degrees in the biological, agricultural, and social sciences/psychology. Although women represent half of the college-educated workforce, they are underrepresented in the science and engineering field. In 2010, women accounted for only 28% of employed individuals in science and engineering occupations. This represents an increase since 1993 when the comparable figure was 23%. It has been shown that girls and boys do not display a significant difference in math and science abilities, so why is this stereotype occurring? In an article titled Why Engineering, Science Gender Gap Persists, author Jenny Marder proposes the gender problem in engineering is more deeply rooted in our culture. Women are often viewed as communal, caring, emotional, and concerned about others while men are viewed as intellectual, rational, and logical – the very traits linked to engineering. In other words, the gender gap in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine) achievement is social and environmental, not intellectual or cognitive.
Locally, two young women are doing their best to change the statistics and faces of engineering. Megan Makela and Natalie Vaughn are 2014 graduates of Fort Walton Beach High School (FWBHS) and FWBHS’s first Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Biomedical Sciences cohort. These two young women have decided to further their education at the University of Florida in the College of Engineering with a Biomedical Engineering focus. For Natalie, the choice was easy. As a student with strong math and science skills and exposure to PLTW Biomedical Sciences units on prosthetic limbs and nanotechnology, “biomedical engineering changed from just an option for a career to what I think is a calling.” Natalie is also a talented artist who paints with acrylics and draws. Imagine the marvelous intersection of art and science and the creativity and innovation necessary for both! This great combination will easily help Natalie reach her goal of developing prosthetics and medical nanotechnology.
For Megan, further studies in engineering “just made sense with my solid science and math background, my high school experience in Biomedical Sciences, and my discussions with local female physicians who have engineering degrees.” Megan says she discovered that students did not have to be biology or genetics majors to get into medical school (her goal) and was encouraged by numerous female physicians to take the same path that was successful for them. Looking forward, Megan’s ultimate goal is to become a neural engineer and neurologist to merge what’s in her head, science and engineering, with what’s in her heart, helping and healing.
Edwin Utt, Professional Engineer and Technical Director for the 96th Test Wing, Air Force Test Center at Eglin Air Force Base, has noticed an upswing of women in engineering in information and electronics technologies. He is also the parent of a daughter who is an engineer. He states that the U.S. tends to lose girls from the STEMM classes during middle or early high school years and recommends changes in elementary school with more hands-on learning activities actively pursuing technically-complex team projects. He views the future workforce consisting of worldwide collaborative environments and the need for students to learn to establish and maintain working relationships. Great news for girls!
So, how can parents foster thinking and encourage skills that facilitate kids’ interest in engineering? Here are some tips that work for both girls and guys!
Boost the child-like sense of wonder and curiosity about the world
Start an early love of learning and maintain life-long learning
Encourage questioning and problem-solving of real-life issues
Enroll kids in a STEMM summer or after-school program
Find and facilitate a STEMM mentor relationship in school or in the community
Encourage kids to participate in science fairs, perform experiments, and do research
Eliminate stereotypes; make clear to all children, through presentation, teaching, example, and at-home discussions, that there are no "boy" and "girl" fields of science
Get exposure to STEMM professionals; ask local experts questions
Develop a STEMM-friendly home with safe experimentation and discovery in gardening, auto mechanics, construction, cooking, etc.
Build a strong self-concept for STEMM areas
Emphasize a child's potential for growth instead of thinking in terms of fixed abilities in STEMM
Megan shares an important point for educators and parents. “There’s a huge difference in girls knowing ‘you’re good at math for a girl’ and ‘you’re good at math.’ It matters when a girl performs poorly on an assignment or test that she doesn’t represent the stereotype that girls are bad at math and when a boy does poorly, he’s just having a bad day…girls have bad days too!”
“Girls are influenced by the actions of other girls and women who came before them--if parents and educators can show girls what women have done in STEMM, I think girls of all ages will be motivated to look toward STEMM fields as a way to empower themselves and become successful,” shares Natalie.
Engineers create, design, and explore. They innovate, build, invent, and test. They produce, maintain, evaluate, analyze, synthesize, research, and construct – all to make our world a better place to live! Engineering is truly the intersection of art and science as well as head knowledge and heart’s desire.
Women in Science and Engineering, see GEM-SET (Girls' Electronic Mentoring in Science, Engineering and Technology); http://www.uicwise.org/