International Women’s Day 2019 is all about #BalanceforBetter—gender balance, that is. Women make up only 30 percent of the science and engineering workforce today—yet this male-dominated group are the people who are designing our gadgets, building machines and tools that are used in health and environmental care, coming up with algorithms that determine a lot of what happens on social media and more … which does not seem balanced.
I am sharing my experience in a recent, required, high school engineering class even though I am not even close to being an expert. In fact, if you had asked me to tell you what “type” of person I was a few months ago, I would have told you that I was an “arts” type. I now realize we need to think past being a “type.” I think it’s important to be comfortable in science, technology, engineering and math just like it’s important to be comfortable in reading, arts and writing in today’s world. If you’re not, it’s almost like you are missing out on critical ways of thinking.
Until recently, my only experience with engineering was joining a robotics club back in elementary school. I remember being bored and utterly confused. I was one of the few girls in the club and I remember letting my peers take over as I sat there. Although engineering was available to me at school, it was not inviting. I believe if engineering had been framed as a creative world, I might have enjoyed it. Debbie Sterling, the founder of Goldie Blox, a building toy targeted specifically toward girls, said that most girls start losing interest in math at around age six, and that is largely due to our culture.
Sterling references research showing that by the time students reach the fourth grade, a third of them have lost interest in science. By middle school, that statistic increases to nearly 50 percent. Girls as young as six believe that specific activities are “not for them” because they think they’re not smart enough. She is working to make it possible for lots of girls to have access to a balance when it comes to toys—not just pink and not just princesses!
Joining my high school engineering class, I was hopeful that it would suddenly come naturally to me, as it always seems to do for a select few in every computer science class I had been a part of. That did not end up happening. During our culminating project, I was one of the few in the class whose project did not work.
Yet, I enjoyed every second of it.
My final project made me think it ways I never had to before. I created a piano, using tools from Arduino. I used buttons, which I envisioned playing notes, turning on lights, and turning on a screen, which would have the name of the note displayed on it. None of that ended up happening, and the troubleshooting was frustrating, but I got to imagine an exciting design that, as far as I know, nobody else had pictured.
My final project involved processes that bore some similarity to how I felt when I worked on a painting in art class or practiced a piano piece. When I paint, I create a plan for what I am going to make and create layers and layers of paint until I like my final product. When I practice Moonlight Sonata, I practice different phrases repeatedly and try playing the phrase slowly so my fingers can accommodate to muscle memory. Although engineering is not exactly like painting or piano, it also requires planning, practice and multiple iterations, as you gradually figure out what’s not working and address those areas.
A lot of people in my age group ask, why do engineering activities if you don’t think you will be an engineer? This was a question I myself asked prior to taking that required engineering class. I love painting, but my motivation is not to become a professional artist. Similarly, I do not play the piano because I think I am going to grow up to be a concert pianist. I do these things because they are both enjoyable and help me unwind; they relax and carry me to a place where my mind can try different things without judgement.
So why not engineering? Engineering is also creating. In my final project, I just happened to use tools like wires, resistors, lights and a language that communicates what we want our built product to carry out. Regardless of whether I become an engineer, an artist, a businesswoman or whatever, my experiences painting, reading, playing piano and creating an Arduino-powered piano (that unfortunately didn’t work) will be my foundation, my experience bank. They should be somewhat balanced so that I can draw from them to keep doors open and to learn and evolve. On this International Women’s Day, let’s make sure that girls and women truly see themselves as capable of anything and have access to balanced mind-sets, skill sets and tools to express themselves.