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Young Engineers Crushing Stereotypes

By Sue Loughlin The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Ariel Bohner of Terre Haute is a senior majoring in biology and biomathematics. Her advice to girls considering STEM fields is to, "Go for it. Don't be afraid of the hard problems. You'll find if you start tackling it, little bit by little, it won't be as hard anymore. It will break down into pieces that are understandable."

The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.

Isabella Popoff is a freshman at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology majoring in biomedical engineering.

A Terre Haute North graduate, she chose engineering "because I liked math and science in high school," but she also wanted a job where she could help people.

Her family was a big positive influence, as were some of her high school teachers. "My grandpa was a mechanical engineer and my great uncle went to Rose for grad school, so that also influenced me. My family always supports me in everything that I do, and it has helped me keep going when it gets tough," she said.

But she believes there's "definitely a stereotype in engineering that girls can't do everything that guys can do." She hasn't encountered that stereotype at Rose-Hulman. "Everyone is really supportive, and becoming friends with other girls who are engineers is pretty empowering," she said. "It's definitely nice to have the support of the other girls."

But statistics show that women in engineering are still a minority.

In the workforce, just 13 percent of engineers are women; only 17 percent of tenured/tenure-track faculty in engineering are women; and only 26 percent of computer scientists are women. More than 32 percent of women switch out of STEM degree programs in college, according to the Society of Women Engineers.

On a positive note, there was a 54 percent increase in bachelor degrees awarded to women in engineering and computer science between 2011 to 2016.

With Thursday being "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day," Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology's Kay C Dee has four tips for parents to help their daughter's prepare for a possible career in engineering or STEM fields in general.

Dee is associate dean of learning and technology and professor of biology and biomedical engineering.

--First, she suggests, "Praise resilience and persistence instead of intelligence -- and praise specifically and genuinely."

Praising them for being intelligent can affect their self-identity, especially as things become more challenging and they may struggle more.

Instead, there needs to be a growth mindset that "I can learn new things and keep working at things and get better over time," Dee said. Even if the student fails a test, it can be treated as a learning experience and "you'll do better next time."

--Don't propagate gender assumptions.

Be careful about pronouns you use. For example, if going to see a new orthodontist, doctor or strength coach, don't assume it's a "he." Dee suggests making it a habit of using "he or she" whenever possible to allow daughters to imagine anyone filling those professional roles.

"Engineering, science and mathematics are classic areas where in this country we tend to view men in those professions instead of women," Dee said.

--Let your daughter know that it's OK if she doesn't love math, and let her know that science classes (like any classes, in any subject) can be boring sometimes. It's not so much about loving math and science, Dee said. It's about appreciating that they are tools for solving problems and finding solutions and then putting in the time to do them well.

--When you hear negative self-talk, don't negate it or ignore it. Sometimes, people might say, "I'm terrible at this." But telling them, "Don't feel that way," doesn't cut it, Dee said. "That's so unhelpful."

Instead, if girls have negative thoughts, they should be encouraged to talk about it. Someone saying they are "terrible" at something sounds permanent. Instead, can they get better if they work at it? Do they want to get better? It's important to point out that most setbacks are temporary, Dee said.

Women in engineering were a rarity when Dee was an undergraduate student, and her first class taught by a female engineering professor came during her senior year of college.

Now, Dee is among several female professors in Rose-Hulman's department of biology and biomedical engineering, along with female colleagues in every academic department on campus.

Popoff had her own advice to girls considering STEM/engineering. "Don't doubt yourself. It is really tough, and you have to work hard, but it's so worth it. There are so many amazing opportunities ... And don't be intimidated by the ratio of men and women in engineering and STEM. You're there for a reason, and you've worked hard to get there, so don't let anyone or anything stop you."

Ariel Bohner of Terre Haute is a senior majoring in biology and biomathematics and her goal is to be a veterinarian or to do research in that field.

She attended high school online through Indiana Connections Academy and her dad, Shawn Bohner, is a professor of software engineering at Rose.

She's always had an interest in science and math and always wanted to do additional research outside of her regular studies. "I wasn't afraid of the hard math questions or hard science questions," Bohner said.

Her parents have supported her in her college and career decisions.

While Bohner has not encountered negative stereotyping, she knows it's out there.

"There seems to be a mindset out there that girls should be afraid of math or science. That wasn't me -- I couldn't understand it," she said. "We can totally do it."

Her advice to girls considering STEM fields is to, "Go for it. Don't be afraid of the hard problems. You'll find if you start tackling it, little bit by little, it won't be as hard anymore. It will break down into pieces that are understandable."

Vibha Alangar is a Rose graduate student studying engineering management; she got her undergraduate degree last year in computer science and software engineering.

"Both my parents are computer scientists. I was pretty lucky that way," she said. They've always been encouraging.

"They never let me feel like I couldn't do it."

She's rarely encountered negative stereotyping, but if she did, it didn't phase her.

Her mom would tell her, "Don't ever underestimate yourself. You can do whatever you want," Alangar said. Her parents "really pushed me to go after things I enjoyed, and I think they recognized pretty early on I liked math, and they encouraged me to pursue that."

Her advice is to "surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself and who challenge you to be better."

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