When I sit on a plane, as an engineer, I can look at the body of the aircraft and imagine an amazing colour spectrum of air pressures and velocities as it flies through the air. While my flight circles over the suburbs of London in the dark, I can see strings of street lights arranged in the beautiful clover-like patterns of motorway ring roads. I can think of the design as an amazing, complex array of angles, distances and inclines which enable the traffic to flow smoothly, without being dangerous. When I see vending machines in the corner of the airport waiting room, I imagine how they differ from the vending machine I designed in my first year of university. As an engineering student, my life has opened up to allow me to understand things all around me that enrich my appreciation of the
world I move in.
There is a vast gender gap in engineering that is fuelled by the attitudes of our society towards engineering. Engineering is an exciting, fast-moving field. It is so relevant to our everyday lives that you simply can’t not be interested. Unfortunately in our society, many people, especially women, perceive engineering as a techy, complex subject. They shy away from asking questions and finding out more for fear of not understanding. It is essential that we create the right environment for young girls to gain the confidence to explore engineering. We need to show interest and stop being afraid of not understanding.
I once watched an interview between David Attenborough and Barack Obama in which Obama asked Attenborough how he became interested in natural science. He replied: ‘Well show me any child who isn’t fascinated by natural science’. He went on: ‘Really, the question should be what stops most people being fascinated by it?’.
This applies to science and engineering too. Children are natural engineers- they’re creative, they’re inquisitive: just give them a bucket and spade and see what they come up with. But then, at some point, society speaks to many children, turning science and maths into something uncool. I think this is a particular deterrent for girls. Girls at a young age are extremely susceptible to wanting to fit in. Showing an interest for something ‘nerdy’ does not fit that bill.
Furthermore, I think girls are often in search of something ‘social’ to have an interest in. By social, I mean they look for something that they can talk about with their peers, or their family, or that they recognise because they’ve heard their mums discuss with friends over coffee. Reading a good piece of literature can lead to discussion in the way that engineering also should, but often doesn’t. Not everyone studies literature, yet many people enjoy reading. Many people also belong to a book group. It is completely acceptable and even admired when people have an interest and get together in social groups to share this interest. I think this is fantastic. However, there are no layman’s engineering groups. People don’t get together to discuss new technologies they’ve read about, or new inventions that are saving lives, or ideas to engineer the flow of shoppers through a crowded Oxford Street on Saturday mornings.
Stop being afraid of not understanding answers
A few weeks ago, I was introduced to someone. He asked me what I study and I told him, “Mechanical Engineering”. “Ahaa” he smiled. “That’s one of those ‘end-of-conversation’ replies. You know, where you have to quickly think of something to change the topic to”. To him, engineering was not a social subject. It’s clear how seeing this attitude in people could be off-putting to someone who might otherwise have been interested in studying it.
To fuel the interest in engineering and in understanding of the world around us, we need to stop being afraid of not understanding answers. Instead, we need to ask questions when the opportunity arises. If you haven’t studied engineering, then of course you won’t understand the technical ins and outs- why would you? But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an appreciation of the concepts.
A while ago I met an elderly couple from Texas. The lady was very chatty, her husband less so but also friendly. I asked what he did and he said he was a chemical engineer… and that could have been the end of the conversation. I asked what he did as a chemical engineer and he said he produces sulfuric acid… again, that could have been the end of the conversation. A while later my friend said: ‘So, tell me, what is the most exciting thing happening in the sulfuric acid business at the moment?’ At then, he began to talk. He told us all about sulfuric acid as a catalyst to produce octane for motors, how oil prices were affecting production and how their industry was affected by global trend. I learnt something amazing!
Start with the young girls
While I am young and can relate to children on a more equal level than parents, I want to go out and show as many girls as possible that engineering is a cool, exciting, dynamic subject. I have been going into schools and giving talks to eleven-year-olds about engineering. I showed the kids cool videos and demonstrated how, at the most basic level, these engineering scenarios link to the maths they have already learnt. I took pictures of the vending machine I designed and made and talked about a water supply project I was leading, based in Benin, West Africa. The kids have all been enthusiastic and have asked insightful questions, both technical and about wider applications. One teacher even got carried away and asked so many questions, he almost forgot about the children. I am now also a guest teacher on Microsoft’s Skype In
The Classroom project to spread these ideas even further. It’s not only the children who have been interested. A few months ago I did a TEDx talk ‘A change in attitude towards engineering’. After that talk, many people came to tell me they had never seen engineering from such an angle. A fellow speaker said he could not wait to introduce his baby daughter to engineering as soon as she was old enough. The next day he tweeted me to say that as he said on his flight home, he looked at the plane and imagined the amazing colour spectrum of air pressures that I had described in the talk.
I’m trying to spark interest. It is then our responsibility as a society to let this interest grow by creating a culture of curiosity. Engineering is problem solving. Engineering encompasses physics and maths and a whole range of other areas: logic, strategy, sociology, economics, human interaction and measures of well-being and happiness. We know that our world faces many problems: freak weather events due to climate change, people starving or with no access to water, refugees displaced with no access to infrastructure, overcrowded cities, lack of green spaces, oil supplies running dry. These problems are all a part of our everyday life and all these projects need engineering to solve them. How come then, is this a topic that isn’t discussed. How can so many people seem to have no interest in this?
To address these problems, we need people to be engaged. At the moment, only 9% of the engineering workforce is women. We can’t risk losing the talent that all those other women might have. Everyone needs to become engaged, for themselves, and as an example to all young girls who could grow up to be the future generation of world problem-solvers. Ask questions when the opportunity arises and don’t be afraid of not understanding the answers. A new, inquisitive and engaged attitude is essential so that girls have the chance to broaden their horizons and understand and appreciate the amazing world that we live in.
Daniela Rossade is doing an international master’s programme in Mechanical Engineering at Bristol University, and is currently studying abroad in Germany. At university, Daniela headed up a water supply project for Engineers without Borders in Benin, West Africa. She blogs about how to reach out to young girls, how to showcase engineering as an exciting field and how networks of teachers and parents could proactively support young girls better. She has been creating talks and workshops for school children about engineering and global citizenship which she now delivers through Skype talks to classrooms in the UK and the USA.
Blog URL is: danielaengineering.blogspot.co.uk