Colonizing Mars, Making Change on Earth

Last night I facilitated a group of Pathfinders (girls aged 12 – 14) in designing a colony on Mars.   They were good at it too!

It was a theoretical exercise designed by young engineer named Rose, especially for National Engineering Month, which is in March (Happy NEM) :).  The ‘Mission to Mars’ exercise is designed to get young people thinking about how the design of a space affects the quality of life of the people in it.  And the neat thing about starting from scratch on Mars is that it introduces young people to challenges that are happening right here on Earth in a very direct, simple non-intimidating way.

Before introducing the exercise, I told them about myself a little bit – Materials Engineer, graduated then worked in a factory solving problems, really liked that because I got to help people, then moved on and became my own boss.  Yup, that pretty much covers it.

I asked them ‘Can you tell I am an engineer just by looking at me?’.  I was gesturing, keeping my right hand prominent, trying to get them to notice my Iron Ring but instead the conversation took a much more interesting turn.

‘No, we thought you were a school-teacher….’ answered one girl, and the other girls agreed that I most definitely did not ‘look’ like an engineer.  I explained that engineers could be anyone – any colour, any gender, from anywhere in the world, etc – and that though it used to be that only men were engineers, women are entering the profession more and more.  Then another question came up:

Tap tap tap! The receipt of an engineer’s ring is cause for celebration and the beginning of a life-long jewelry choice.

Great question. It’s interesting how an exercise that talks about something as futuristic and fantastical as colonizing Mars had us come right back around to the history of gender segregation in engineering.

That question of why it happened that way has many answers.  To me, the most important thing is that we are moving forward into a dynamic and innovative future for engineering that receives and values contributions from people from all walks of life, including gender.

I hope that the girls left my presentation feeling like they could certainly have a future in engineering, if they wanted one.

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What’s the engineering type?

During a recent twitter chat with the Big Beacon community, the question came up of whether in order to be successful in the profession, an engineer will always need to be “a certain type” of person. It got me to thinking: what is that engineering type?

(By the way the Big Beacon twitter chats are every Wednesday evening at 8 pm ET – please join us to discuss the present and future of engineering education! We touch on all sorts of interesting topics and welcome your voice to the conversation.)

Is there an ‘engineering type’?

image via @theSecondMrHan

Are engineers all the same? image via @theSecondMrHan

This is a really interesting question; on the one hand we want to say that we are open and inclusive and that all types are welcome.  On the other hand it would tough to ignore the fact that many engineers do tend to have similar personalities and traits in common.  I have had this experience at engineering networking events and conferences – there is often an instant recognition in meeting someone who shares your professional background.

The value of defining an engineering ‘type’ or identity is that it makes our culture stronger, makes the stories easier to tell.  It’s kind of cool knowing that you belong to a group – an engineering family if you will.  Even though they may be strangers they share common ground with you, care about many of the things you care about, face many of the same challenges, and maybe even share some of your personality quirks!

Another perspective

Then again some engineers may not share those ‘engineer-type’ traits – does that mean that they can’t or shouldn’t be engineers?  The risk of defining this culture too narrowly that we stop being inclusive and open-minded about the value that other perspectives and thinking styles could bring. We risk missing out on the benefits of diversity – known among other things to be an absolute necessity for innovation, creativity and profitability in business.

More specifically to the engineering profession, we risk becoming too insular and isolated if we define our identity too narrowly.  This is bad for business.  How are we going to serve the needs of society without having them represented within our own ranks? I was recently quoted in a special report about Engineering in Canada (check bottom of page 2) about this very topic.

A diversity of diversities

Since I am a woman, my comments are often taken to be about having more women in engineering, but I believe that all types of diversity (personality, strengths, traits, interests, age, as well as race, ethnicity and gender) are beneficial – I would even say crucial to the future of our profession.

Every type as the engineer type

As Big Beacon founder Dave Goldberg tweeted last night:  #BigBeacon would like to see every type be ‘the engineering type’.  In the professional field made up of ‘Whole New Engineers’ an envisioned in the Big Beacon manifesto, provided that a student has the ability and the willingness to work hard to solve important problems, constantly make things better, work in teams, design the future and make the world a better place, the engineering profession will take one look at them and say:  Yup – that’s our type!

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