I love this poster; by the Women in Engineering (WIE) section of the IEEE: “I Create the World. I am an Engineer”. From providing clean drinking water to inventing artificial organs that save lives to creating technologies that allow people to connect with others on the other side of the planet, engineers really do make a difference.
I attended an event this last weekend where we inspired young girls with our passion for engineering and technology. Two college students shared with the girls why it was that they liked engineering. One student said she wanted to help people. Her interest was in developing technologies to provide clean drinking water to people who don’t currently have access to it. She believes by finding a solution to this problem she can make a difference in other people’s lives. The other student shared that he liked to solve puzzles, and engineering problems are often just puzzles. Science and math are two of the tools that he uses to solve these puzzles. For him, the challenge of a new problem keeps him engaged and excited about his work.
I had a friend in high school who had a passion for music, but he decided to go into electrical engineering so he could design better sound equipment for bands. I was recently inspired by a high school girl who wants to pursue aeronautical engineering because she wants to be part of space travel.
For me, engineering is an opportunity to create something new. I like working with fellow engineers to come up with new ideas and innovations and to be constantly learning. Additionally I also like the challenge of a good puzzle!
I recently heard a story from American Public Media’s Marketplace podcast which revealed that females account for only about 7.5% of the patents in the US. Really? Only 7.5% of patents? This number is somewhat debatable since gender is not captured on patent applications and therefore the data are estimates based on applicants names. This article from the National Women’s Business Council claims that women received 18% of the patents in 2010. What is not in dispute is that the number of patents women are receiving is growing. A recent Forbes article mentions that the two of the most patent-intensive fields are mechanical and electrical engineering, fields that have lower percentages of female workers. However, the women in the research departments of these fields tend to be younger than their male counterparts, which could indicate why they receive fewer patents. It may also mean that in years to come there will be more women receiving patents as they become senior contributors in their fields.
I know a number of patent holders, but none are women. That does seem strange to me, but maybe that will change!
US News and World Reports issued a press release about an upcoming STEM Summit to be held in Dallas, Texas in June 2012. Check out this website for information on the conference.
Members of industry, academia, and policy makers are expected to attend this event to explore ways of addressing the shortage of STEM skills in our workforce, especially our future workforce. Over the past ten years demand for workers in STEM fields has grown at a rate three times faster than the demand for workers in other industries. That is impressive growth. Many of these jobs are high-paying positions. (Engineering fields always top lists of best paying jobs with bachelors degrees) We really need to figure out why there is a lack of interest in these fields and see if this can be fixed. Otherwise we are going to have to import more engineers from other countries to fill these positions.
I was asked recently by a parent “How can my daughter figure out if engineering might be right for her?” Since I didn’t know what engineering was when I was in high school, I thought this was an excellent question.
Resources do exist out there. Some schools in large school districts offer engineering courses so students can get an idea of what engineering involves. However, not all students have access to such programs and have to look for information and opportunities elsewhere. Below are a few resources available for students, teachers and parents.
FIRST Robotics, BEST Robotics, and First Lego League teams – Being part of a robotics team is one of the best ways to get the “design” experience. The teams are presented a challenge and they have to design and build a robot in a set number of weeks that performs a specific task. It’s a lot of fun and the kids learn about the troubleshooting and redesign processes of engineering. Students have the freedom to explore their ideas and be creative without the fear associated with failing. In many engineering projects it takes several testing and redesigning iterations before finding something that works. So it’s okay if your design doesn’t work the first time. The robotics competitions give kids a chance to do some hands-on work and they may pick up a few new skills, too. Even teams whose robot never works right still have fun and learn a lot.
Girl Scouts programs – Girl Scouts offers a number of STEM-related activities. Engineering societies and engineering corporations often partner with scouts to offer special events that allow students to explore engineering. Check out your local council to see what programs are available.
Society of Women Engineers – SWE sponsors many outreach events geared towards students. You can check their Aspire website for schedules and for resources. Most major cities have local sections that can be contacted as resources or for more information.
E-Week – E-week is a week each February devoted to engineering. Events are held across the country at museums, engineering corporations, and schools. There are also webcasts of events for those who cannot attend local programs. One of the goals of the event is to educate parents, students, and teachers about engineering and share enthusiasm for the field. If you missed the event, look up past webcasts and information on the official website: http://www.eweek.org.
Websites – Numerous websites have popped up with resources geared towards female students. Here are a few: www.engineeryourlife.org, www.discoverengineering.org, techbridgegirls.org, nerdgirls.org. These offer girls a chance to read about real-life female engineers, many of them young women.
If anyone had told me when I was young that I was to become an engineer, I probably would not have believed them. In high school I really wasn’t sure what field I wanted to pursue in college and beyond. I enjoyed my math and science classes, but I also loved music, art and creative writing. My parents wanted me to pursue engineering, but I was having a difficult time understanding what engineers did. I attended a program sponsored by the boy scouts that explored engineering, but it was based on designing buildings and that did not interest me much. By the time I entered college, I had yet to make a choice so I officially declared myself “undecided” and hoped I’d figure it out eventually.
As a freshman, I toyed with the idea of majoring in either biology or chemistry. Biology was interesting, but I couldn’t see myself working in a lab all day culturing tissues (my idea of a biology job!) and the salary prospects were not exciting. I ended up deciding against chemistry as well and was leaning towards medicine. The problem was that I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a doctor. Medical school was a huge commitment and I was convinced that if I went that route I would be stuck in the profession even if I didn’t like it.
Then one day I met another student who was doing research at the medical center on MRI machines. This was back when MRI machines were fairly new and I thought the work he was doing was so cool! I loved the idea of a machine that could look inside the body and see so much. It was then that I learned about the biomedical engineering field and decided it was an excellent combination of my interests. This was a field where I could contribute to improving peoples’ lives without being an MD. The starting salaries of biomedical engineers with bachelors degrees were very good and the coursework sounded very interesting. I signed up.
The biomedical engineering curriculum at the school I attended incorporated courses adapted from other engineering disciplines such as mechanical and electrical engineering. Little did I know when I enrolled in my first circuits class that I would really enjoy it. Electronics was a foreign field to me, but once I started studying it I was hooked. I liked that I was learning how to make complicated devices work and “think”. It was also an opportunity to be creative and clever in the designs. I ended up concentrating my studies in electrical engineering and then I pursued a masters degree in electrical engineering to balance out my biomedical engineering degree and define my field of specialization.
At times I review my decision to pursue engineering and wonder how my career and life may have been different if I had pursued another career. I am glad I did not go into the medical profession. It is a wonderful profession and I have a true admiration for MDs, but it would not have been a good fit for me. Engineering has been a great choice. Engineers are in such high demand that finding a job is much easier than in other professions. Employers often offer flexible schedules and work-from-home options to attract the best talent. Engineering salaries always rank among that highest for professionals with bachelors degrees. Although layoffs have become commonplace, the salaries are usually generous enough for engineers to accumulate an emergency fund in a case a layoff hits them. Additionally, there are many engineering jobs out there (like designing artificial organs, etc) that provide the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others.
Engineering Week (“E Week”) is next week. This is a wonderful opportunity for students and parents to learn more about engineering and participate in creative and fun activities. Companies and organizations around the country will be holding events and sending engineers out to schools for classroom visits. In the past I have participated in E Week by volunteering at hands-on workshops for Girl Scouts at our local science museum. You can learn more about E Week events at the Engineers Week Website
Why write this blog?
I want to offer young women some insight into what it is like to be an engineer. When I was a student I had no idea what engineers did. I had some ideas that they designed bridges, worked with power lines and solved math problems and that was about it. That didn’t sound very exciting to me. It wasn’t until college (and maybe beyond) that I really developed an understanding of what engineers do and realized how exciting it could be. Engineers create and improve the world around us. They drive innovation and make a difference in peoples’ lives. I want people (especially young people) to gain a better understanding of what engineering is. I am an engineer and I do not sit around and do math problems all day!
I’ve been working as a professional for almost 15 years. I’ve worked in three different industries with very different work environments. I want to share my educational and work experiences with other engineers. I also want to talk about topics such as career planning and professional development that may appeal to women in a variety of fields.