Guest Editorial: Dr. AnnMarie Thomas

Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day (February 18th) carries a special importance. Somehow, we’re failing our girls when it comes to engineering. A recent study showed that while women earned 58% of all bachelor’s degrees, only 21% of engineering bachelor’s were awarded to women. Furthermore, women make up only 26% of the science and math workforce. What can we do? We asked Dr. AnnMarie Thomas, a professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas, to give her thoughts. — JohnIf you walk into the typical college engineering classroom, you will almost certainly be struck by a gender imbalance. Typically the male students outnumber the female students by, at least, three to one. (The obvious exceptions to this are Smith College and Sweet Briar College where all of the engineering students are female.) This leads many of us in higher education to wonder why, when more than half of the college students in the US are female, do few women choose to pursue engineering as a career? Many of us, myself included, think that part of the problem is exposure. In the 2009 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index surveyed teenagers about their perceptions of science and technology fields. They found that 31% of the students that they spoke to do not know anyone who works in the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Who can blame them, then, for being wary of pursuing engineering as a career? If you don’t know anybody who does a certain job, it is pretty intimidating to consider signing up for it yourself! Thus, it’s exciting to hear that the National Engineers Week Foundation is again hosting an “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.” This event is a way to start the conversation about what engineering is, and to hopefully encourage more students to consider it a possible option when they are choosing careers.

I once had a female student come to my office, a bit nervously, to tell me that she was leaving engineering for another field. She was worried, it seemed, that she was letting people down by leaving engineering. Thus, I think she was surprised when I told her that I was thrilled that she had found a field that she was excited about. That my job, as a professor, wasn’t to force her into engineering, but rather to show her that engineering was an option for her. If we can get to the point where all students, male or female, feel that engineering is an option for them, even if it’s one they choose not to pursue, then we have succeeded. What a different place the world could be if many of our politicians, teachers, musicians, and parents had, at some point in their life, meaningful exposure to the field of engineering. Ironically, I actually spent high school trying to become and actress or painter. It was only through working with some amazing teachers that I realized that engineering was a creative outlet, and a way to make a real difference in the world. The problem solving and critical thinking skills I’ve learned as an engineer have served me well even in my non-engineering endeavors.

When I look back on my own career, I am struck by the fact that after high school I never had a female professor for any of my technical courses. In fact, the sole female professor that I had in my 9 years of post-high school engineering training was a music professor. While this example might serve to highlight, yet again, the fact that most engineers are male, I hope that a second point is noted: you don’t have to be female to mentor a female. I was fortunate, throughout my life, to have mentors who exposed me to various activities and branches of knowledge that, in retrospect, make me a better engineer. Some of these mentors were young, some were older, some were female, most were male. All of them, however, shared a passion for using engineering to solve challenging problems.

So, this February 18, I challenge all of you makers out there to introduce a girl to engineering- pick up a soldering iron, go on a factory tour, visit a windmill, or share the beauty of Bernoulli’s equation. And feel free to include her little brother, father or mother!

Dr. AnnMarie Thomas is on the faculty of the School of Engineering at the University of St. Thomas (UST). Her main teaching interest is engineering design, though she has also combined her love of circus arts and engineering with a course on the dynamics of circus, with students learning about the physics of movement through labs at a local circus school. AnnMarie leads the Design Lab at UST. Working with undergraduates, projects have ranged from squishy circuits for teaching electronics to children to communication devices for older adults. She is also the co-founder/director of the UST Center for Pre-Collegiate Engineering Education, which has as its mission teaching engineering to PK-12 teachers and conducting research on PK-12 engineering education. AnnMarie has an SB in Ocean Engineering (with a minor in Music) from MIT, and MS and PhD degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Caltech.

Readers: What ideas can you offer to encourage girls’ interest in engineering? Work on a building set? Play math games? Leave your ideas in comments and we’ll aggregate them on the 18th.

Image: Argonne National Laboratory

12 thoughts on “Guest Editorial: Dr. AnnMarie Thomas

  1. I grew up with a soldering iron in one hand and a terminal keyboard in the other. I knew I was having fun when I was working on projects with my dad, but I didn’t know I was doing engineering. The math, science, art, and technology departments at my school existed in independent silos, so my physics teacher never saw the clock I designed in art and drafting class and built in shop.

    When I watch TV, Mythbusters is the show that most parallels my childhood, but no one ever uses the word “engineering” on that show. SWE doesn’t buy ads, neither does IEEE. For that matter, neither group buys ads in Make. For me, the penny dropped reading Celeste Baine’s Engineers Can Do Anything — She points out that engineering is training in the skills of a system of thinking that can be applied to anything. I started working on my Bachelor’s in EE after reading that, and while it’s been a long slow process, I’m finally making good on my promise.

  2. Excellent comment, Anne, about making the connection between what many people do naturally and engineering as a field of study.

    I haven’t heard of Baine’s book but it sounds terrific. Would you consider writing a short review of it for us? Maybe we could publish it next week.

    1. It looks like the book I read was “Is There an Engineer Inside You?” Ms. Baine produces a video with the name “Engineers Can do Anything!” Which I haven’t watched (yet).

  3. My Dad’s an engineer, and throughout my childhood, he introduced me to a wide range of engineering concepts and projects, because they’re cool, and he knew I’d find them interesting. He never hesitated to show me something because I was a girl.

    I’m trained as an engineer, but no longer work in the field. I encountered open hostility for being a woman engineer as a student and a professional on multiple occasions. As a student, I had a professor include pornographic photos on an exam. When I joined the workforce, there were almost no women who had been promoted into management, and yet a significant percentage of the white men with whom I worked believed that women received favoritism in promotion, assignments, etc… and because of that, they didn’t want to work with women. Managers were aware that these men had “issues” with women, but it was seen as a tolerable quirk.

    The vast majority of my coworkers and professors were fine, but this stuff wears on you, and at some point I realized that instead of putting up with it, I could work in a field where it wouldn’t be tolerated.

    I graduated from engineering school in ’94 and left engineering in 2001. Hopefully things have improved, but I’d encourage my daughters to be aware of these issues if they decide to go into engineering, so they can carefully choose schools and employers that WANT women and insist they are treated decently.

  4. Disney’s Tinker Bell is a surprisingly good role model for younger girls – why not watch the movie on Feb 18? Tinker Bell is an unequivocally girly girl, who also happens to be an engineer. But here’s the thing: there is no hint in the film that these are in any way incompatible or that engineering male or otherwise not girly. That’s why the movie could help girls see a role for themselves in engineering.

    I wrote a short note about Tinker Bell a while ago here: I even mentioned that Tinker Bell would be the kind of fairy who would have a subscription to Make magazine.

  5. @Anne I *definitely* agree with the “Engineering has a PR problem” sentiment. Best wishes for success in your EE program!

    @Ln I am so sorry to hear about your experiences. (And heartened by your “The vast majority of my coworkers and professors were fine” sentence.) I do think the atmosphere has improved, but there will always be exceptions. The key, I think, is to report these negative incidents, and also for all of us to do our part to improve the environment.

    @adamnieman: Your post made me smile. Ironically, I had a number of conversations this week about why “Tinker Bell as engineer” would be a great thing for Disney to promote! It was uncanny reading your comment so soon after these discussions!

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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