Having worked in electrical engineering for three years, it impossible not to see the massive gender gap. Women accounted for about 15% of electrical engineering degrees in 2002. This statistic is utterly pathetic. As a math teacher in training, this issue is salient for me currently, because one reason I have changed careers is to have an impact on secondary STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. In the United States, STEM education is failing more so at the primary and secondary levels than at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
So, I felt especially inspired when I visited Hilary Mallar (Math for America) at Bronx Science High School on Wednesday. Hilary is the advisor of the Fe Maidens all-girls robotics team. As part of the First Robotics Competition, these girls have six weeks to develop an intricate robot. For this year’s competition, the robot must navigate around a course, pick up inner tubes with an electronic arm, and hang the inner tubes on pegs as high as 10 feet high on a wall. And, oh yeah, at the end of the competition, the robot must release a “mini-bot” that will autonomously climb a 10 foot high metal pole.
When I visited, the girls were working on five sub-teams: electronics, construction, pneumatics, “mini-bot,” and public relations. Each sub-team had a leader, who was either a junior or senior, and 4-5 other members, who tended to be freshman and sophomores still learning the ropes. All the girls seemed invested in their apprenticeship, willing to give up hours everyday after school and on weekends during this grueling competition season.
What impressed me even more than the magnitude of this all-girls robotics apprenticeship was the communication ability of the sub-team leaders. The girls were able to discuss incredibly coherently their long-term and short-goals with respect to their sub-team, as well as the problems they were solving and debugging on that particular day. Such clear communication ability is atypical of graduate students in electrical engineering, let alone seventeen-year-old high school students. That said, I want to say a big thank you to Leena, Nicole, Mindy, Francesca, and (of course) Ms. Mallar for making my day.
Again, visit their website, learn about them, and be inspired. These will be the women leaders of our STEM fields!