Asia, Europe, Latin America, Middle East, Middle East & Africa, North America, Strategic Development, Strategic Development

Women in Engineering series: Back to school

Working with education to develop more women engineers is vital for the energy industry.

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Engineering companies and companies who hire engineers, meet your newest and most important stakeholders – girls. They might be your 12-year-old daughter, your six-year-old niece, or your preschool neighbour next door. 

Talking to young girls about your job in the field or about their potential future career in engineering, is no longer a “wouldn’t it be nice” moment or a box to check. It is now fundamentally important to your business. If this doesn’t happen, you won’t be able to acquire the talent you need 10-15 years from now to solve the problems presented in your business.Women in engineering: Working with education to develop more women engineers is vital for the energy industry

If you don’t take advantage of developing global female talent in our schools toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering and maths plus art & design) initiatives, our girls will still go on to do something amazing, but it won’t be in engineering. 

Considering what we know about the complexities of the problems we’ll be facing in the years to come, engineers, mathematicians and scientists are going to need every bit of smart, collaborative human talent they can get.

So, when I think about girls in science growing into women who engineer, I focus first on attracting them to the subject matter. It sounds simple, but whether we want to speak about it overtly or not, there are ways in which we filter our girls out of math and science that we have to be incredibly conscious of.

In school, in some instances, we even have to force the issue through mandating that every student – boy or girl – touch the areas of science or math. This helps us fight standard gender stereotypes. It’s much more typical for boys to collect statistics on baseball or football players, than it is for a girl. It’s much more stereotypical for a boy to be encouraged to play with motorized airplanes, Legos, robots and transformers, than it may be for a girl.   

Now, none of these stereotypes are universal, of course, but these are the forces our young girls are up against and it’s important to understand that. So how can we combat it? How do we first get them interested in engineering and then, how do we ensure they stick with engineering long-term and make it their career of choice?

Early love of science

Starting as early as preschool, girls should be introduced to concepts like coding. They can become familiarized with robotics, and be building structures with blocks and Legos. At this age, there’s not an opportunity for gender stereotypes to surface. By the time girls have experienced STEM, they equate it with fun. From a social and emotional standpoint, if they are pushed to do something else, they’ll push back.

But, school isn’t the only place where learning happens, of course – the most important classroom in fact is right at home. Girls can be taught STEM skills in simple and unexpected ways to complement the learning taking place in school.

For example:  

 

·       Tracking the weather: Every morning before school, check the weather report online or on TV. Have her place a bucket outside to measure rainfall, and keep a graph and chart to keep track of the rainfall over time.

·       Building Lego models: Follow closely the building guide that comes with the Lego set. Ask her: Why is that the next step? Why do wheels go on either side of the car? What do you think this shape will turn into?

·       Baking cookies from scratch: The science behind baking sparks a great discussion about how different substances react to elements such as heat, not to mention the math involved.

·       Magnifying sunlight: Take a lens and place it on a piece of paper outside in the sunlight. When the piece of paper burns, ask if she expected the reaction. Then, research sunlight and where it comes from.

Once girls have started down this path, it’s critical to keep them on it by presenting them with a wide range of opportunities. In education, we have found that competitive opportunities at the middle school level work extremely well.

As students become more competitive approaching high school, our girls are very easily encouraged to take that competitive impulse and put it into science and math. Whether that’s becoming a mathlete or participating in a competition like ExploraVision, where girls work together to design a future city or innovation in the field of science and tech, the key is to help them feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in this area that enables them to stick with it. Sharing feel-good moments with their peers in these instances keeps girls engaged.

Next comes high school, and this is where we lose the most of our female scientists and mathematicians. It’s the place where corporate partnerships must come in to play. For businesses that want to be successful in 10-15 years, they must have a role in developing the female talent in our schools today. 

If not, they are setting themselves – and our girls – up for failure. If we can give girls the opportunity to work in a lab, work at a research center, interact with female engineers, they will be hooked for life, ready to study in our top engineering schools, and ultimately on to do incredible work in the field.

Build a talented workforce

There’s a growing and critical need for engineering talent. Considering what we know today about the challenges we’ll be facing in the future, we need a smart and collaborative process to develop and attain global talent.

Adecco Staffing surveyed 500 senior executives and asked if the current American workforce had the skills necessary for success. It should be of little surprise that the results highlighted a stark reality for our children. The study found: 

·       92 per cent of Americans are not as skilled as they need to be for career success;

·       44 per cent lack the ‘soft skills’ of communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration;

·       59 per cent of senior executives believe our education system is to blame for this gap.

The characteristics of success in typical academic environments were never designed to support today’s work requirements. The corporate community has got to step up and engage in the education process. And I don’t just mean in college; by then, it’s much too late.

If corporations and businesses have a clear sense of what they need in a future employee, essentially that ‘training’ can start to happen as early as preschool. Right now, educators are guessing as to what will best prepare girls for the future, as most have no experience or depth of understanding of what will be required of an employee at Exxon Mobil, for example. If the desired result is a woman in the lab, shouldn’t educators be talking to the people running the lab?Women in engineering: Working with education to develop more women engineers is vital for the energy industry

In school today, memorization and test taking skills, as reinforced by standardized tests and written exams, teach girls how to handle stress and repeat ‘right’ answers to finite problems. They do not require them to solve for new complexities, but they do penalize them for thinking creatively or ‘experimenting’ with solutions.

By praising a girl’s ability to follow instructions as demonstrated through individual performance on traditional rote homework assignments, our girls are rewarded for ‘walking between the lines’ individually, but not for their problem-solving skills or for the end product of a group or collaborative.

How, then, can we get girls on track for success beyond their academic careers?  How can we ensure that they are someone we would want to hire?

Ten years ago, educators could teach girls a set, set of skills that could form the foundation of any career. But with the evolution of technology, girls have to acquire skills like problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and communication at a much younger age. We are venturing into an area of skill development that many teachers have no experience with. What they do know is how to teach, and they must work in partnership with the people who have the knowledge.

Bringing about this change requires meaningful collaboration between the schools that teach our girls and the businesses that will eventually hire them:

Express the specific desired outcomes for work-ready graduates. Get involved in your local school board. We need engineers, scientists and doctors on our education committees. It’s critical for educators to consult with technical professionals as we develop curricular models so we’re preparing students with the skills needed once they enter the workforce 10-20 years from now. Remember, we are not engineers, but we can teach the concepts needed to be a successful one.

Support and encourage school-work partnerships so that students may experience ‘real-world’ expectations. What girls need more than anything else are role models – female engineers in the oil and gas industry, at NASA, etc. – who are engaged and excited about what they are doing. Females who can speak to our girls about the impact they are making on our planet, the global problems they are solving, and the difference they can make if they stick with STEM.  If those moments happen, our girls will go on to become engineers because the environmental factors and stereotypes working against them won’t matter. Women in engineering: Working with education to develop more women engineers is vital for the energy industry

 

Offer shadowing opportunities in your place of work so girls start to understand what it feels like to be in the real world. Many of the associations, supervisory entities you’re involved in have lecture opportunities. Find out if they are willing to open these places up for high school girls to attend, as well as trade fairs and other lecture series.

Listen to the ideas and concerns of teachers, administrators, faculty and staff. Get your company involved in local social groups or religious groups working with local schools. Participate with the primary focus of being a model in engineering. Also consider being an adjunct teacher. There are tremendous opportunities on the K-12 side as well as community colleges.

These are not simple solutions, of course. But, without a partnership between schools and employers, public and private, I don’t see how we can combat the choices young girls make that lead them away from lucrative and rewarding careers in the field of engineering.

Gabriella Rowe is the Head of School at The Village School in Houston, a private, international PreK-12 school in Houston known for its focus on science and math. Each year, nearly 50 percent of Village’s graduating females go to college to study in the engineering field. Rowe was actively recruited for the position and, after one year, grew student enrolment by 20 per cent. She has been involved in the global education industry for nearly 20 years, leading The Mandell School in New York for 14 years before moving to Houston. [email protected]