Teaching Science to Kids Part I: Women in Engineering

Some background

I’ve worked with students since I was a researcher in high school. I held a year-long stint with Dr. C. Ted Lee, Jr. in chemical engineering. As part of the STAR program at Bravo Medical Magnet High School and the University of Southern California, I was able to reach out to students at Murchison Elementary School where I taught the youngsters about blood flow through the human body, measurement, and the fascinating mechanics of our eyes. At Arizona State University, where I did my undergrad, I continued my outreach whenever possible. I enjoyed volunteering for FIRST LEGO League, the National Science Bowl Arizona Regional, the National Science Bowl in Washington D.C., and other various workshops held by ASU and the Fulton School of Engineering that pain me not to remember! But the focus has always been on inspiring the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and leaders in this beautiful world. My dream is to inspire a generation of scientists and engineers and make a positive difference in their lives.

Outreach at the University of Maryland College Park

For a few, very interesting sessions this summer I was able to talk to students of elementary school (grades 4 and 5) and high school ages (grades 11 and 12). These students had various grasps on what “engineering” was. Some students thought that engineering was being “creative”. Some thought that it was “working in teams”. These were my favorite students. The first session was with Women in Engineering at UMD.

Women in Engineering:

I really liked this group of 30 female high school students. They were quiet, but they ended up being one of the most vocal groups by the end of the session. They grew confident because I developed a friendly atmosphere. I joked around. As a presenter, you need to be interesting. I tried to relate my own personal experiences to what they’re going through now. If you’re authoritative and just describe “here’s what your next 4 years are going to be like” they will lose interest or get the wrong message. The idea was to get a good group vibe while addressing the reality of studying engineering in college, and being aware of how to handle it all. They will have their own unique experiences and follow their own paths. Some will not even major in engineering while in college. So it’s good to give young students information that will not only benefit them when moving ahead in engineering, but any subject in college.

I’m very excited about Women in Engineering (both the group, their sponsors and volunteers, and the participants in their outreach programs).  I gave a one-hour lecture where I talked about the importance of several topics. I let them know straight. College, but especially engineering, is going to be difficult. It’s going to be stressful, exciting, and rewarding. There is an endless list of things I wish I knew when I finished college, more than can be conveyed in an hour lecture. So the next best thing is to talk about the essentials, and convey a feeling about college. An idea, that hopefully sticks.

Digression

We have a serious problem in engineering. It separates males and females at face-value. This is a finely drawn line in engineering that hard-working female engineers have spent decades attempting to erase. I’ve heard males at all levels of my education speak candidly about this topic in a very sexist manner. We’ve certainly made a lot of progress, but there is more progress to be made than has been achieved. Engineering is a white male. Work needs to continue to change that reality. As a perception, it’s changing. There is proper etiquette in the workplace. Minorities are treated as equals, given great responsibility. But there are severe wage disparities. There still exists discrimination and until that reality changes (and until we see equal representation and salaries in our field), we have a problem.

I digress! But as a Mexican-American engineer, it means a lot to me. And that’s part of the reason why I volunteered to speak for Women in Engineering. So I digress intensely.

Questions, please

There were some good questions after my presentation. The girls did want to know about classroom ratios. I said it varies from one engineering specialty to another. But it’s typical to have a first year calculus class with a 3:2 male to female ratio. I emphasized that it’s important to try different things that they’re interested in, whether it’s research, a project, or a class. When you try new things you learn more about yourself.

Was the class engaged? Absolutely. My favorite part about this group is that they took notes. This is another quality of young students that I greatly admire! Documentation is essential. They asked questions during the presentation. One pet peeve of presenters is their lack of willingness to take questions mid-presentation. I agree that it can derail a well-timed presentation. But with young students, I highly recommend allowing for questions DURING your presentation. They may hesitate to ask later, or simply forget. Encourage questions during presentations so that it feels like a discussion, not a lecture. Engineering is more of a discussion than a lecture.

Let’s do this again!

I hope WIE has me back for another talk. I’d love to talk to other students about engineering (or current undergraduates about the reality of graduate school). From this presentation I learned that I need to keep the talks short, to the point, and allow room for many questions. What’s important is to increase awareness of engineering, and it starts with a conversation.

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