When I was in 2nd grade, my aunt asked me if I knew how to spell "engineer": E-N-G-I-N-E-E-R.
My aunt is an aerospace engineer, and, not surprisingly, my first STEM role model. As the years went on, she would always have me recite "engineer" back to her whenever she came in town to visit and would share stories about what she was working on with Boeing. My pediatrician was female. My first science and math teachers were female. I almost obsessively watched Bill Nye the Science Guy, a man. Am I an anomaly or is there a reason I fell in love with science? Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.
I pursued my childhood dream and became a professional dancer, but once I realized my dancing life had an expiration date, I chose the career that was familiar all my life. When it came time for college, I chose to focus on engineering and when it was time to choose a major, I had discovered the possibilities engineering offers in the fields of aerospace, mechanical, electrical, biomedical, nuclear, chemical and more. Most girls growing up do not realize chemical engineering can range from developing lipstick to the coating on a handbag.
Today I am a chemical engineer working with FirstBuild, an innovative new microfactory that fosters co-creation and getting products from mind to market in months. FirstBuild was spawned by GE Appliances as a way to develop products that consumers really want.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a first grade class where I asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
I accepted these as general kid-friendly answers. But then I decided to run a little experiment, so I asked, "Does anyone know what an engineer does?"
I gleaned two things from this experiment: 1) Children don't understand the range of career fields in STEM and 2) what they think engineers do sounds very "boy-ish."
So is one of the missing links between successfully creating a new generation of rocket scientists, computer programmers and technology geniuses simply that they aren't exposed to any role models? Are we not lifting up scientists and engineers? Where is the Serena Williams of the STEM world?
It's up to us as women in STEM to pass the thirst for knowledge to the younger generation. One positive development is the nascent maker movement which is gaining popularity in communities around the nation. The maker movement enables anyone with an idea to grow it into a useable product, so it is a great way for women and girls to get involved.
Because of the growing momentum of the maker movement, online co-creation communities like FirstBuild.com are encouraging people to get involved and you don't need a degree to do so. Those who think they might have a great idea or figured out a better way to do something can get involved today. Who better than young women to let us know what they want in their home appliances of the future? The world needs their ideas, passion and involvement. Online communities like FirstBuild are a great way for those with an interest in math and science to network with likeminded people.
Another way to get involved in the maker community is with Maker Faire. There were 195,000 attendants at the Maker Faires in New York and San Francisco in 2013, with at least half bringing children. Called "the greatest show and tell on earth," you can think of Maker Faire as a combination of a science fair, new technology showcase and street fair. With approximately 100 events each year all over the world, it's easy to find one nearby and stoke your daughter's intellectual curiosity.
After attending the New York Maker Faire with FirstBuild, I can attest to seeing the excitement in children's eyes when they were exposed to new technology and engineering concepts. The special thing about Maker Faire is you will often see the founders and CEOs standing by their booth and talking about their product. Kids have the opportunity to engage with these developers and to interact with their creations like a 3D printed jewelry or a 3D printed car.
Women can succeed in STEM careers, they just have to know they exist and understand why science and math are important. Maybe you'll inspire a young girl to become an engineer.
Can you spell O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y?