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How to build an engineer: Start young

Aliah Corona and Dakkota Ryf, both 8 in this photo, check the force it takes to move a bag of potatoes six inches using wheels during their third-grade STEAM enrichment class at Pioneer Elementary School in Quincy, Washington.

Aliah Corona and Dakkota Ryf, both 8 in this photo, check the force it takes to move a bag of potatoes six inches using wheels during their third-grade STEAM enrichment class at Pioneer Elementary School in Quincy, Washington.


QUINCY, Wash. — A few years ago, a young female engineer named Isis Anchalee was featured on one of her company’s recruiting posters only to be subjected to a barrage of digital feedback questioning whether she was really an engineer. People posting on Facebook and Twitter said Anchalee was too attractive to be an actual software engineer and must be a model.

Anchalee responded like the techie she is. She wrote a blog post about her experience and added a photo of herself with the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer. Twitter exploded with selfies of female engineers of all backgrounds and male engineers of color declaring they looked like engineers, too.

If she had known about the hashtag campaign and taken a look, Alessandra Gudino Aguilar, age 8, might have seen a grown-up version of herself. Alessandra, a student at Pioneer Elementary School in rural Quincy, Washington, spent part of the fall term in an enrichment class focused on teaching elementary-age students the principles of engineering design through a curriculum designed by educators and scientists at Boston’s Museum of Science.

“I like the process,” Alessandra said after a lesson in which she and her classmates used simple machines to move a bag of potatoes in an attempt to find the potato-moving option that required the fewest newtons, the unit of measurement for force.

“Ask, imagine, plan, create, improve,” Alessandra recited when asked what her engineering class was about. “You get to use a lot of your creativity more.”

Alessandra is the youngest of three siblings. Her father works in construction and her mother, she said, works making French fries. A Latina student living in rural America, Alessandra is not the stereotypical future engineer. More than many professions, engineering is still dominated by white men. Forty-nine percent of the jobs in science and engineering were held by white men in 2015, according to the National Science Foundation’s report on “Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering.”

Black and Hispanic women together claimed less than 4 percent of jobs in science and engineering, according to the report. Less than a third, 28 percent, of scientists and engineers working in those fields are women. Black and Hispanic men held less than 7 percent, total, of science and engineering jobs in 2015.

Engineering “allows for all kinds of learning to shine.
Nia Keith, director of professional development for the Museum of Science

And while science and engineering degrees earned by Hispanic people have been increasing over the past decade, that same National Science Foundation report found that the number of science and engineering degrees earned by black people has actually declined.

High schools and colleges have been aware of the imbalance, and tried to remedy it, for years: There are many programs aimed at pulling women and students of color into science and math fields as teens and young adults. Some, like the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, have been inordinately successful at guiding underrepresented students, including many young women, from middle school algebra through to a college degree in a STEM subject. Other efforts, like the Hour of Code challenge by Code.org, are more about exposing kids to the world of science and engineering than about shepherding individual students through years of education.

The Museum of Science’s Engineering is Elementary curriculum is aimed at attracting potential engineers before they get distracted by whether or not they fit the stereotype. Since 2003, more than 15 million 6- to 11- year-olds at thousands of schools across the country have been taught how to think like engineers using the curriculum.

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