Aspiring Women Engineers Get a Taste of Aviation

A few hundred would-be aviation engineers and scientists met this weekend at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA to celebrate National Women’s History Month.

The aspiring group of all-woman middle- and high-school students had the opportunity to listen to an exceptional panel of female speakers—including former astronaut Wendy Lawrence—and take part in various aviation-related workshops.

The weekend event was aimed at inspiring young woman to get involved with aviation on all levels, not just flying. Among the workshops offered were nanotechnology and robotics.

“We hope today you’ll get a taste of what science, engineering and math really are and think about what you want to go on to in college,” said Melissa Edwards, director of Washington Aerospace Scholars (WAS), and a former teacher who says she got hooked on STEM through the miracle of space flight. “In my time women who flew were stewardesses. Now they’re captains!”

WAS is an educational program for high-school juniors from across Washington State which emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math, and encourages students to consider careers in these fields.

Robotics was one of the more popular workshops; beginning with student-lead discussions which ran the gamut from the International Space Station’s robotic arm to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

The young women then broke into teams of four and were given 30 minutes to assemble a rover from a robotics kit containing a control pad, four motors, four wires, wheels and a sundry other items. The robots had to move backwards, forwards, and left and right, as well as pick up material and store it on board. There were no instructions for the kits.

“I like messing around with the robots – it’s cool because I’m into science fiction,” said Tessa Tweet from Aviation High School, where each student is required to take one year of robotics.

“I’m thinking of going into the medical field and I wanted to expand my horizons by learning more about robotics,” said Diamond Williams, Clover Park High School Junior ROTC cadet.

When the time was up, each team competed with their robot to see which could pick up the most items.

“There were very few women studying engineering 60 years ago. We were treated as an oddity,” said Jan O’Neill, an airport engineer at Paine Field, who attended the robotics workshop. “There were lots of questions about whether as women we were capable. I felt like I had to convince people. Now there is a lot more acceptance.” O’Neill has been a professional civil engineer for 32 years.

“We need to overcome the perception that engineering is not feminine,” O’Neill said. “Everything needs a feminine touch. Take dentists and surgeons – the smaller the hands, the better the work. That’s just the same for mechanical engineering for instance.”

The nanotechnology workshop was also very popular. Students learned all about carbon nanotubes in relation to aerospace and the space elevator, as well as solar technology. All the young women got an opportunity to take part in a number of science experiments set up around the room.

The nanotechnology class was run by Maureen Devery, outreach coordinator for SHINE (Seattle’s Hub for Industry driven Nanotechnology Education). SHINE targets middle- and high-school students and STEM educators to expand the diversity and number of trained nanotechnicians entering the local workforce or transferring to pursue nanotechnology at a four-year institution.

“In our program maybe 20 percent are girls. There are a lot of opportunities for woman at the high school and middle school level to get involved with science, but we need to start even earlier to engage young children and their parents,” Devery said.

SHINE is a fairly new program, but it’s already having a positive impact. “We follow our students on after they graduate our program and we’ve seen a lot of success,” Devery said. “In fact, we had to move our internship slots (SHINE students have the opportunity to intern with a company) to the last part our program because originally they were at the beginning and industry was hiring our students right out from our program before they had even completed it.”

SHINE has several big-name industry mentors and sponsors, including Honeywell and EnerG2—a pioneering company which uses nanostructured carbon materials for energy storage.

After the workshops, the young women were given the opportunity to listen to a panel discussion. Panel member Wendy Lawrence, a former astronaut, stressed patience, tenacity and teamwork as key to her success, as well as never giving up on a dream: “I was 10 years old when I watched Apollo 11 land and I said to myself ‘that’s what I want to do.’ And I found mentors to help me along the way, people who would take me closer to my dream not further away from it.”

Lawrence, has two engineering degrees from the U.S. Naval Academy and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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