Message To ‘Rocket Girls’: Nerds Are Cool

By Lenore Sobota
The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill.


As a video played explaining the work of the National Reconnaissance Office and its often secret satellites, Karolyn Young moved to the beat of the music.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that nerds aren’t cool,” said Young, who not only was one of the narrators in the video, she also is the aerospace engineer and rocket scientist who worked on many of those secret projects.

Young is principal director, space launch engineering and acquisition, at The Aerospace Corp., a California-based company that works with military and civilian government agencies as well as corporations.

She was at the Rocket Girls camp Monday at the Challenger Learning Center at Heartland Community College, Normal, representing the national board of directors of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, on which she serves.

The camp is designed to “provide an environment where the girls can be just with girls and not feel the competition from boys or the dampening down effects,” said Susan Evans, a flight director at the center.

That’s why Young was there Monday.

“I don’t want young ladies to think, ‘I can’t do math; it’s hard,” or ‘I don’t want to be smarter than the boys,'” Young told the girls. “Be smart. It’s great. … Be strong and kind. Be who you are.”

Young has been at Aerospace for 33 years, starting as a summer intern after her freshman year at the University of Michigan. She went to work for them full time after receiving her master’s degree in aerospace engineering.

A jacket covered in patches tells the story of her career.

They are, for the most part, mission patches from the projects in which she has been involved.
One exception is the largest patch on the back, which says “Fallen Heroes” and honors astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.

“They’re always close to my heart,” she said.

As the group of 14 girls shouted out their favorite subjects and interests, Young told them not to limit themselves.

“It’s not an either-or,” Young said. “Sometimes it’s an ‘and.'”

Interviewed during a break, Young said one reason she is involved with events such as Rocket Girls is “to make sure girls see other women in the industry — to see themselves.”

Evans said contrary to popular opinion, young girls are interested in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields. The problem, she said, is “they’re interested in everything” and as they get older “they start to fall off.”

Young said the United States is last in the STEM fields “because we choose to be. We didn’t lose the STEM race; we lost the will.
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Young said, “We have to invest in our kids and invest in our country.”

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