Geek Speaks… Fiction! Guest Author J. Kathleen Cheney

Image: Melanie R. Meadors
Image: Melanie R. Meadors

Please help us welcome fantasy author J. Kathleen Cheney to GeekMom! Ms. Cheney is the author of The Golden City series from Roc Books. The Shores of Spain, book 3 in the series, has just been released today.

The Real Steampunk

I’ve always thought that if I had a chance to do my life all over again, my new day job would be as a civil engineer. It would be right up my alley. I have a nerdy fascination with sewer systems, underground building design, highways, rooftop gardening, and distribution/transport systems.

So when I worked on the first of the Golden City novels (aptly titled The Golden City), I fell in love with these:

Photo: Monumentos Desaparecidos

Those two beauties are the Titans in Matosinhos, Portugal.

For those people who live in areas with harbors, they might even recognize what they are. Essentially, they’re cranes that specialize in building breakwaters. A breakwater is an enclosed area around a harbor or river’s mouth that makes for calmer waters where a ship comes in to dock. What the Titans do is carry 10-ton blocks from a building yard out to the end of the breakwater (via its own railway) and set the block into the water. Once enough stone is there to support the crane, the railway is extended, and the Titan goes back to get another block.

(Titans, by the way, are a classification of crane. It’s not the name of this particular set of cranes. So there are far younger Titans all around the world, in many industrial and nautical settings.)

Photo: Monumentos Desaparecidos
Photo: Monumentos Desaparecidos

I’ve included this picture so that you can get a bit of perspective on how big they are. The little “house” that’s sitting atop the crane’s boom arm is actually the housing for the steam engine. Beneath that, inside the boom arm, is the ballast that balances the heavy weights (up to 50 tons) that the Titan is made to carry. It’s an amazing piece of technology, particularly when you realize that these two were made during the Victorian age.

You want steampunk? These babies are real steampunk!

In my first novel, I managed to squeeze these guys in. There’s a scene where my hero, Duilio, ducks behind one of that behemoth’s rail wheels for cover during a gunfight. If you look at the little tiny people standing around on the temporary tracks, that will give you an idea how tiny he must have felt hiding under the Titan’s bulk. It’s huge, and in his place, I would have been terrified.

Now, at a ripe old age of 132 years, the Titans have seen better days. As they’re not being used for loading, they generally sit idle on the breakwaters. However, one did have an accident in 1892—it was swept into the ocean during a storm. The city managed (after a few years) to haul the thing back out of the water and set it back on its railway tracks. In early 2012, one of the Titans dropped some metal (metal fatigue), causing a rupture in a gas line and an industrial fire. After that, the city decided that instead of demolishing them, they would refurbish the two Titans to stave off another accident. That fall, when I traveled to Matosinhos, one of the Titans was, indeed, missing, having been taken away for that promised work.

There are many people arguing for the Titans to be named International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks. There are actually very few of these things left throughout the world. One that was built in 1907, in Clydebank, Scotland, was recently converted into a bungee jumping site. So I watch with fingers crossed and hope that they will last another 132 years, and that our descendants will look at them and marvel that we could have—with our limited technology—have managed to build such beauties.

If you’d like to see more pictures of the Titans, click here to see my Pinterest Page:

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). The sequel, The Seat of Magic, came out in 2014, and the final book in the series, The Shores of Spain, will come out July 2015.

Tinker, Pilot, Maker, Oh My! 3 Picture Books Starring Girls Who Love to Build

Interstellar Cinderella © Chronicle Books
Interstellar Cinderella © Chronicle Books

Books about princesses and ballerinas are always fun reads, but it’s also great to find books starring heroines who also enjoy getting their hands dirty and figuring out how things work. Here are three charming and notable picture book picks featuring girls who love to tinker, fix, build, and make.

© Chronicle Books
© Chronicle Books

Interstellar Cinderella, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt

The classic fairy tale meets sci-fi in this lovely and welcome twist on the story of Cinderella. Cinderella doesn’t dream of living in a castle or meeting her prince, but of getting her own ship to fix and tinker with.

All of the familiar elements are there: the unpleasant stepmother and stepsisters, the prince, and the ball, and Underwood’s take on other parts of the tale are both clever and obviously well thought out. Cinderella’s mouse friend is a robot, she comes to the Prince’s rescue, and her response to his marriage proposal makes picking up this book worth it alone. And I’m not certain, but I like to think there’s an intentional nod to Doctor Who in there as well.

© Harry N. Abrams
© Harry N. Abrams

Rosie Revere, Engineer, written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts

Rosie loves to build and tinker, but when one of her inventions goes haywire, can she find the courage to keep trying? Not only does Rosie Revere, Engineer include both colorful characters and a great jumping off point to talk about history, the story gives the rare message that it’s okay to fail. In fact, failure can be celebrated, as long as you keep trying.

This important theme and the wonderfully detailed illustrations of wacky gizmos make this a book that we revisit time and time again.

© Dial Books
© Dial Books

Violet the Pilot, written and illustrated by Steve Breen

Violet is a mechanical genius who loves disassembling and reassembling things to see how they work. When she turns eight years old, her dreams turn to the sky. She works hard to make her own airplane, even as the other kids avoid her or tease her. Her parents support her, which I loved to see in the story, and she and her best friend Orville never give up in their work to reach the clouds.

Violet the Pilot has a vintage feel with soft illustrations, and can even begin conversations about life before selfies and social media.

Add ‘Batman Science’ to Your Kid’s Summer Reading Pile

© Capstone Publishing
Batman Science (Classroom Edition) © DC Comics / Capstone

Your kids might be in the middle of their summer reading challenge or program and wondering, “What should I read next?” I recently happened upon the perfect book to add to the book pile this summer, aimed at kids who love science and/or comic books: Batman Science from Capstone Publishing and DC Comics.

© DC Comics / Capstone
© DC Comics / Capstone

Have you ever seen a batarang fly through the air or Batman fly up the side of a building with his grappling gun and wonder, “Could that really happen?” Batman Science tackles that question for all of the Dark Knight’s signature moves and equipment with clear, concise information. Although the title touts science, most of the topics are overviews of engineering topics worded for late elementary age kids.

Topics range from the Batsuit and utility belt to the various Bat vehicles. You and your kids might be surprised at how much of Batman’s fictional weapons and equipment have a basis in real-world science and engineering. There’s a heavy emphasis on real-world law enforcement and military equipment and tactics, as most of Batman’s arsenal is based on the same type of technology and methods.

Authors Tammy Enz and Agnieszka Biskup did a fantastic job of splitting up engineering topics into bite-sized chunks of information ideal for kids’ attention spans. You’ll find yourself picking up the easy-to-read book from time to time to skim over interesting topics, from how Kevlar is made to concept cars like BMW’s GINA that can change its shape like the Batmobile.

Batman Science is available now in paperback, a fantastic way to get kids who love superheroes interested in the amazing engineering in the real world.

Breast Pumps at the MIT Hackathon

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I spent four months pumping milk for my firstborn, and I’m in the middle of (probably) six months pumping for my second. I work full time and have two children, and breast pumping is an integral part of my life—one I’ll be glad to see the end of. What do you mean I can’t lean back in a chair and read while I’m pumping? I have to lean forward? Do you know what that does to my (already aching) back?!?

All of which goes into why I was super excited to see the theme of this year’s MIT Hackathon: Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!

According to the website: “On Sept 20-21, 2014, 150 parents, engineers, designers, and healthcare givers will gather at the MIT Media Lab for the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon.”

As many sources point out, the health benefits of breast milk are legion. But it’s also really, really hard to be a working mother (or just a mom with a kid who has trouble nursing) and keep up with your child’s needs. I cheat: I nurse, use expressed milk, and also formula. It can be difficult to find space. Where I work right now I’m lucky—there are three nursing mothers, and they’ve reserved an office for our use. But at my previous job my pumping quarters were a curtained-off portion of the ladies restroom. Not my favorite place to spend 15-30 minutes on any given day, much less for months of my life. And I really worried when I had to take an out-of-state trip for work. I can nurse more easily in an airport than pump. Pumping can also be painful at times, although I’ve gotten depressingly used to it. As Courtney E. Martin and John Cary wrote in the New York Times: “Shouldn’t the Breast Pump Be as Elegant as an iPhone and as Quiet as a Prius by Now?

I join women of all circumstances in cheering on the MIT Hackathoners this weekend!

Space Opportunities and News

Image: NASA

Did you know that there is an international competition for high school and college level drone engineering teams? The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted the 12th Annual Student Unmanned Air Systems Competition from June 18th to the 22nd in Maryland this year. According to the Southern Maryland Newspaper association teams from the U.S., India, Israel, Turkey, and others competed this year, building autonomous planes from scratch that could fly routes to hit prescribed waypoints and safely conduct abort scenario drills. The drone systems can compete in a number of different categories. Although this year’s competition is just past, this might be something to consider for the high school students who have gotten too blasé about robotics competitions.

Another opportunity for student scientists is the NASA Rock On! program. According to “The students in the program build experiments in three days that measure acceleration, spin rate, radiation, humidity, pressure and temperature during a rocket flight.” On June 26th, a suborbital sounding rocket launched from Wallops Island carrying payloads designed by the student participants.

According to Wired magazine, there’s a new partnership between biological research and aeronautics brewing. While large animals can be tracked with electronic collars that can transmit information to orbiting satellites, any collar with enough oomph to communicate that way is too big to fit on smaller animals such as birds, small mammals, or even insects. So the Smithsonian and the National Zoo have pioneered an innovative collaboration with United Airlines (and others) called Partners in the Sky. United will allow some of its planes to be outfitted with antennas that can pick up the tinier signals from tinier tracking collars, and as they fly across the country hither and yon, they’ll be recording whatever signals they get from the ground below them. Then they’ll relay the information back to the biologists at the zoo. That’s a really smart partnership, and one of the few things to make me feel better about commercial air travel these days.

The spacecraft Cassini is celebrating its 10th anniversary in orbit around Saturn. Cassini launched in 1997 and was able to conduct observations of Jupiter on its way to Saturn, arriving there in 2004. It dropped a probe on the moon Titan, which successfully relayed information back to Cassini and back to Earth. It’s another mission that has long outlived its planned lifespan (in this case, four years) and has gone above and beyond its mission parameters to keep feeding us useful information. Most recently, it is being reported that it may have found an ocean of liquid water on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Cassini is currently scheduled to remain active through 2017.

Book Review: Women of Steel and Stone

Women of Steel and Stone. Image Chicago Review Press.
Women of Steel and Stone. Image Chicago Review Press.

Women of Steel and Stone contains the stories of women architects, engineers, and landscape designers from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, in the era of the women’s suffrage movement and shortly after the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when women were struggling to prove their equal worth as employees in any profession, let alone in a profession deemed a man’s job—such as working with, well, steel and stone.

One of my favorite chapters from Women of Steel and Stone was about the architect Julia Morgan, who designed the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. Being a Californian myself and having visited Hearst Castle a couple of times, I was both interested in learning more about this architect and appalled that I hadn’t heard of her in any detail yet. Morgan was born and raised in Oakland, where she finished high school—not a small feat for a woman of her time. She then went on to attend the University of California, Berkeley for engineering, and proceeded to become the first female student in architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When she returned to San Francisco a few years later, she landed only a few architecture jobs. That was until the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed most of the city, except Morgan’s buildings! Her business boomed after that and the rest of history. Being an acquaintance of William Hearst’s mother, Phoebe, Hearst hired Morgan to build what was supposed to be a modest bungalow. As Hearst’s success increased exponentially, so did his plans for his estate. Morgan worked all week on her other contracts in San Francisco, riding down to San Simeon on the weekends to work on Hearst’s Castle. In her lifetime, she finished Hearst’s mega mansion as well as more than 700 buildings in California.

This is just a digest of one of the chapters in this book. I was also pleasantly surprised to find a woman in the book who shares a last name with me, landscape designer Marian Cruger Coffin, whose background matches my husband’s family line. So who knows, maybe one of my daughters has landscape architecture in her blood!

One of the interesting things about the women in this book is their unique opinions about being a woman in a man’s field. Some showed immense talent but quit the business in disgust for the poor treatment they reserved, some were morally opposed to the special treatment of women in architecture on the grounds that there should be no difference between male and female counterparts, and some made being a successful female architect look positively effortless.

My only negative comment on this non-fiction is that I really wish it had been designed as a coffee table book. While the book does contain some small black-and-white images, full-size color images on big glossy pages would have enticed readers and inspired awe in the beauty of these women’s works so much more effectively. Nevertheless, Women of Steel and Stone is fascinating. Its large font and abridged biographies make it perfect for teenagers or adults looking for a quick—but meaningful—read.

I can’t conclude without mentioning how much I love the title, Women of Steel and Stone. Such a powerful imagery. I don’t think the author could have picked a cooler title, pun intended.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Talking Cars, STEM, and Moms With One of the Women Behind the New Ford Mustang

The women behind the Mustang. Image: Ford.

I spoke with Ford Vehicle Line Director Marcy Fisher about working on the new 2015 Ford Mustang, getting kids into STEM careers, and her path to becoming an engineer. Guess who one of the people she credits with helping her find that path?

That’s right—her mom.

The Ford Mustang is one of the most iconic American cars ever made, so its redesign was a big deal, especially if you happen to work at Ford. I asked Marcy what it was like finding out that she’d be working on such an incredible car. She said it was both exciting and a little daunting.

“It’s like a dream, in this company, everybody wants to be on Team Mustang. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, but at the same time, really, a little bit scary,” she said. It wasn’t a matter of simply doing the job, but of making all those fans happy. “You don’t want to be known as the person who messed up the 50th Anniversary Mustang!”

It wasn’t just Marcy behind the new design, but a whole team and she gives them a lot of the credit for being vested in the project and wanting to make this Mustang the best Mustang ever. “Everyone wants to work on this vehicle,” she said. “They’re excited to go the extra mile. We all know what the Mustang is, and that we have to deliver that for the customer. We can’t let the customer down.”

The All-New Ford Mustang
The 2015 Ford Mustang. Image: Ford.

I also asked Marcy if she’d faced any challenges as a woman engineer, especially in the very male-dominated automotive industry, and her answer is one that every woman and every girl should take to heart.

“I think people feed a little bit off of what you believe your own capabilities are, and so, I’ve never thought of myself differently because I’m a woman. I don’t think about myself as a woman in the automotive industry. I think about myself as an engineer in the automotive industry.”

She says that in her 28-year career, she has always focused on simply doing the best job possible and that the quality of her work overcomes the objections or stereotypes of others. “Be great at your job. Always put forth your best effort and your best foot, have the best interests of the customers at heart, and let that guide your driving force,” she said. “In the end, people see what you’re capable of.”

As to her decision to become an engineer, she gives a lot of the credit to her mom in helping guide her choice. “I was always good at math and science and was lucky enough to have a mother who was very influential and who was also, I think, very ahead of her time,” she says. “She spent a lot of time looking at actually what do I want out of a position and it kept coming back to engineering.”

Marcy also had this last piece of advice for girls looking to pursue careers in STEM fields:

“The main thing is to be true to yourself. And no matter what situations or decisions you’re facing, it’s always okay to be exactly who you are. You should celebrate that and not try to fit into a world that you think you need to somehow conform to to be part of the culture of that group.”

GoldieBlox: An Interview with Debbie Sterling and a GeekMom’s Take On Girls and STEM

After I interviewed the founder of GoldieBlox, events unfolded that made it seem prudent to hold off  posting until the dust had settled. I have so much to express about this topic and waiting in terms of Internet time (which has been proven to move faster) poses the danger of being behind the current events. But the topics I want to address reach beyond this current media explosion, and the decisions GoldieBlox are making exemplify my points.

I spoke with Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox, right after she launched her new video, and a new product, for her line of toys meant to draw girls into engineering. Her experience both as a child herself and as a female engineer led her to research and observe what attracts girls and how she could support encouraging more girls into the engineering field.  This is how GoldieBlox was born: Take the attractive allure of a character and a storyline, and role model engineering to create a comfortable context in which girls will become interested in engineering.

For those who don’t know, GoldieBlox is a set of parts that come with a storybook. In the course of the story, kids build what the main character is building, resulting in a finished product that matches the story and has imparted an engineering concept or skill. The books also contain ideas and plans for other things you can build.

Sterling says that all of her research has resulted in this product that is resonating with her target audience by integrating experiences girls may be familiar with and that her main message through her characters is, “Take risks, don’t give up, failure is OK.”

Sterling is proud of her product and what it has done for the girls she is trying to inspire. She recalled one of her favorite stories about two daughters whose mother wrote to Sterling, saying her girls were obsessed with Goldieblox. They played with it non-stop, singing songs about engineering, and the characters in the story. That kind of enthusiasm and integration of engineering into play was exactly what Sterling was hoping for.

Her motto, “more than just a princess,” not only guides her product line, but also inspired her to launch two videos. The first, a parody of “We are the Champions” features a bunch of girls taking over the toy store aisles, apparently to demand more choice in what is offered to girls. The second, just launched, featured a wicked Rube Goldberg machine and was a parody of the Beastie Boys song “Girls.” Sterling says the intention of the video was to take a misogynistic song and reclaim it, sending a message that girls deserve more options. She says she is not trying to bash or shame princesses but that girls need more role models and experiences that are alternatives to the current marketing trend.

Since I have spoken with her, there has been a conflict with the Beastie Boys who questioned her use of their song, especially in light of the late Adam Yauch last wishes that none of his songs be used for advertisements. Goldieblox was heavily criticized for their immediate legal actions in trying to secure their right to use the song, and have now apparently backed down and changed the song to an instrumental “Princess Machine.”

photo courtesy of GoldieBlox
© GoldieBlox

I am less interested in whether or not this was a well devised marketing ploy (after all, even their name is a parody), or the fumbling of a very young and inexperienced entrepreneur. I’ll leave the writing about fair use and parody to others. It seems pretty clear that they should have done more research around their song choice and considered whether this move was worth the backlash.

I am more interested in dissecting the value of the product itself. I am a girl, I have a daughter. We are a family who is heavily invested in education and the advancement of STEAM concepts and skills for children (I like STEAM over STEM- the integration of art is essential, in my opinion.) We are exactly her target audience. Unfortunately, we are also less than enthusiastic.

I was upfront with Sterling that my daughter found the toy kind of boring and not very open-ended. This could be because it did not connect with my daughter (it happens), or it could be that my daughter has access to a lot of building materials already. Sterling acknowledged that they were working on this by increasing the number of building suggestions in the book that accompanies the toy, and that they have launched a new part of their website dedicated to Goldieblox fan inventions. It is her hope this will help extend the play and increase the opportunities for inventing beyond the storylines in the books.

Here’s the thing: I think Goldieblox is coming from a genuine place, wanting to help close the gender gap in the STEM fields and provide more options in the toy spectrum. I think they are excellent at marketing. I also think they are a young company and a bit confused about their participation in the “girls need to be this now” trend which is, in my opinion, just as bad as the market telling girls they must be princesses swathed in purple and pink. Is this a different option when the colors are still pastels (primarily purple), the characters are attractive, and the storyline includes a princess pageant?

Sterling told me they chose that storyline for their second product because most girls would have experience with a talent show, but that is not what they called it. They called it a “princess pageant” and clearly two of the female characters want the title. The message feels a little like, “We know you like princesses so we are going to cater to that but it’s not good enough. You have to be more.” They are certainly not the only ones. The desire to inspire and empower girls is growing, as is the opportunity to convince parents of the need. That is the real issue.

I was not particularly into dolls and dressing up when I was young, but my daughter is. Raised after two brothers in a very gender neutral household, my daughter chose pink and purple and sparkle as soon as she could say the words. While it’s true that she often has a sword tucked into her fairy wings, the fact is she is everything this movement says is wrong. I think we have to be very careful about vilifying that which our girls value. Not every girl needs or wants to be “more than just a princess, ” that a princess is more than we are giving them credit for.

In our house a princess is kind and just, knows her international relations, speaks many languages, or has many skills in order to assist in running a kingdom. Princesses are like figures in mythology; for little girls they represent all of the qualities of being human that they are trying on as they figure out who they are. All princesses are unique, just like all girls are.

Sterling disagreed with me on my concern about the message that girls have to be good at everything. She says that her characters are not geniuses nor perfect, but in fact messy, quirky, and willing to make mistakes. While I have not seen much evidence of that yet, I am more concerned with the battle cry at the expense of everything else, particularly the attraction to fancy and the exploration of what beauty means to each individual girl. Those things are always used as an excuse as to why girls don’t ‘x,y, or z.’ That simply isn’t the case. It is by being supported in our interests, whatever they may be, that allows us to be open to new possibilities.

Finally, I questioned Sterling about focusing on girls. She insists that it is necessary in order to close the STEM gender gap. Even so, many boys like the product as well. She feels it is generally gender neutral and that her products will become more so with the introduction of a boy character next year. I know she has done a lot of research about what engages girls, and if this product gets even one girl interested in engineering, then bravo!

I would suggest however, that catering to girls like this is not the only way to achieve a more balanced range of options. Despite the current trend in the Maker/STEM movement, to promise a development of passion with purchase, I think many girls and their families are getting tired of all the marketing targeted at them, telling them who they should be, particularly in relationship to their gender. It is just as effective to buy your girl a bunch of building materials and invest your time introducing them to engineering skills and concepts. You want to make an engineer out of your daughter? Build with her. Make and hack things instead of buying them. Take her to appropriate community events and introduce her to female mentors who serve as role models.

It is not the lack of options or opportunities right now that is keeping girls from seeking STEM careers, it is what happens when they get there. The reality is that many fields of science and medical graduate students are more than half women, but eventually the women leave. Not because they played with Barbie or princesses two decades ago, but because they opted to have a family and found the workplace culture and long mandatory work hours to be completely incompatible. As a former scientist I know said to me, “Even if we raise a generation of girls to want to be engineers, will we give them maternity leave in twenty years?”

Look, I think the product itself is slickly designed and fun for many girls, and I encourage you to take a look if you think it might interest your daughter. For me, though, it introduced an intense scrutiny of what we are buying. Those girls in the video didn’t set up that “princess machine,” it was a piece of excellent marketing designed by adults to sell a product. Even if it was meant to empower and inspire, (and perhaps for many it did) it is still a message that is telling my daughter through words and images what she should be, what she should like (or not).

So until we get to a place where we can honestly and earnestly support boys and girls in their own visions, I am going to continue to question any attempt to change the world through a product. It is relationships and experiences that create new generations of innovators, not products, and if we want those innovators (boys and girls) to be engaged and satisfied in STEM careers then we need to focus on the real issues of culture and policy to see that change.

Margaret E. Knight, Inventor Extraordinaire

Image by Karen Burnham, Creative Commons 2013.
Image by Karen Burnham, Creative Commons 2013.

Being an engineer myself, I know that all the technology in our daily lives doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. At some point, a person or people thought about a problem and created something new. Most of the time these stories are mundane, nothing that anyone not directly involved would be interested in. Other times, the story takes on the air of legend, as with Thomas Edison and his light bulbs. In between those extremes lie some mighty interesting people you probably haven’t heard of.

My most recent discovery is a remarkable woman named Margaret E. Knight.

Consider the humble paper bag. If you’d asked me last week, I’d have assumed that its lovely fold flat/stand up design was the product of 20th century automation. But now I know that it is the product of the mind of Margaret E. Knight who was born in Maine in 1838. She went to work in the New England textile mills at a young age (before those pesky child labor laws) and witnessed some of the horrific accidents that could occur around that era’s industrial machinery. Her first inventive efforts were aimed at creating automatic mechanisms that would stop a mechanical loom’s operation if a person or animal got caught in it. I find it a bit boggling that she’s more famous for paper bags than for her humanitarian efforts.

After the Civil War, she came up with the idea of the flat-bottomed paper bag, the kind we’re all familiar with today. She not only worked out the prototype, she also created a machine that could do all the folding and gluing automatically. And here’s another amazing thing: A gentleman by the name of Charles Annan spied on her efforts and filed a patent claiming her work as his own. Knight took him to court—and WON! She was granted her patent in 1871 (one of more than 20 she would be granted in her lifetime). Along with a male investor, she formed the Eastern Paper Bag Company and received royalties. She was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.

I’ve always been sorry that I didn’t have more female role models for science and engineering when I was growing up. All the folks I wanted to emulate were men (Richard Feynman, Ed Krupp, Carl Sagan, etc.). I would have loved to have known about Ms. Knight well before now.

If you’d like to tell your sons and daughters about this impressive woman who was well ahead of her time and whose work continues to make our lives just a little bit better, you may want to find the middle grade (ages 7-11) book Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully, which won an award from the American Library Association. You could also take a look at Henry Petroski’s Small Things Considered, which uses the paper bag story as a lesson in industrial design.

Additional links about Margaret E. Knight:

Building on Her Own Terms: From Lego Foe to Lego Friends

Used with permission from

In 2012, after four years of research, Lego launched their Friends line. The line was marketed to girls five and older and featured kits that encouraged not only construction but storyline based play. The line was very controversial and there were numerous petitions asking Lego to stop pandering to gender stereotypes. Protesters felt that Lego was going back on its years of gender neutral claims by making girls feel like the only toys that they could play with should be pink and involve pampering.

Never missing the opportunity to rant over gender stereotypes in toys, I was one of those protesters. The petitions were all over my Facebook feed.  They showed beauty shops adorned with pink bricks, and said that the line simplified construction for the girls. Well, if I read it on Facebook it had to be true, so I eagerly signed and shared every petition. If my daughter was to become interested in building, I was certain that she would be perfectly content building a firetruck or a dragon castle. The Friends line had me in a tizzy.

Well, as we all know glass houses shatter easily and within good time mine was going to shatter into hundreds of pastel Lego bricks.

When the Lego Friends line was launched, our family was knee deep in a love affair with all things Lego. Our son had always loved playing with Duplo blocks as a toddler and has since spent countless hours building with Lego bricks. We even used his Lego play as his first introduction to math. There were no preschool or kindergarten math worksheets or workbooks. Just Lego bricks.

Kids that spend time involved in complex block and Lego play in their preschool and kindergarten years develop high levels of spatial perception and have a much easier transition to advanced math topics in their teen years. Spatial skills are the ability to visualize and manipulate two and three dimensional objects, and are essential for reading a map and merging into traffic. They are also the foundation for success in fields such as math, engineering, science, architecture, and even meteorology.

I had seen how our son benefited from Lego play and I wanted our daughter to gain the same skill set through play. There was only one issue, she did not have any interest in Lego bricks.

As a toddler, her favorite Duplo activity was to suck on them, and as she continued to grow, her use for Lego bricks didn’t progress much past eating or throwing them. She seemed downright bored by all things Lego. After a while, the thought crept in my head that maybe girls really don’t like building. Could all of my Facebook rants about gender stereotypes in toys be wrong? The thought of deleting all those posts was overwhelming, so I settled on assuming our daughter just had different interests from her brother.

Not because she is a different gender, but because she is a different person.

While I accepted that my daughter didn’t seem interested, I must admit that I hoped that one day she would enjoy building with Lego bricks. I wanted to see the excitement on her face after she created a structure that first appeared in her mind. Kids that sit down and build learn how to turn an idea in their head into a tangible object. They figure out how things around them work and gain the confidence in executing and completing difficult projects. I wanted her to have the confidence that she could engineer, build, and execute a project just as well as her brother or any other boy.

Apparently our daughter wasn’t the only preschool girl overlooking Lego play as the go-to entertainment. In 2011, 91% of Lego products were sold for use by boys. Were girls building at all? Were they missing out on the opportunity to learn all that such play offers? It’s no secret that in our country males are cited as having better spatial skills than women, and gender differences in spatial and pattern recognition skills appear as early as four years old (1). It is becoming clear that nurture, and not nature, has a lot to do with these differences.

Girls with older brothers are much more likely to be exposed to, and have interest in, building toys such as blocks and Lego bricks. These girls also have higher spatial and math skills than other girls. While this gender gap begins early on and extends through adolescence and adulthood, it can be reversed. Israeli researches demonstrated that the gender gap in spatial skills among first graders could be closed by getting the girls to engage in activities, such as building, just once a week.

All this research is fascinating, but how could we get girls interested in building?

Companies are trying to figure this out and new start up companies such as Goldiblox are developing toys whose main goal is to get girls to build and engineer. We bought Goldiblox a few months back, and while our kids enjoyed playing with it, it didn’t seem to spark an interest to build in our daughter. Unbeknownst to me, that missing spark was about to burst into a flame.

Two weeks ago our daughter yelled that she needed help. I went upstairs and found her on the floor building her brother’s Lego Dino HQ Defense kit. She had the directions out and needed help finding a piece. I tried to contain my excitement as I sat down with her. We sorted, we counted, we added, and we discussed details of the directions. She was incredibly capable, confident, and animated in her building. I was so happy that she was enjoying building and I was shaking my head and saying a rhetorical “I told you so” to Lego.

The next day she asked for her own Lego bricks. We told her that there were already approximately 5,000 bricks for us to step on each day and that we certainly didn’t need anymore. She said that wanted her own kit to build. She was so excited that we relented despite knowing that our feet would never forgive us.

I sat her on my lap and went to the official Lego website. She dismissed every Lego City kit that I pointed to. She had her eyes set on a kit that I was pretending not to see. I showed her at least ten different sets and her response was always the same. She told me that she “would” build those but she really wanted to build and play with the other kit. She wanted Olivia’s Tree House, the number one selling kit from the Friends line. Rolling my eyes and sighing loudly I clicked on the kit. Then I heard myself saying, “This set is really cool.”  Yes, the Friends line has a beauty shop. However, it also has a vet clinic, a horse farm, and kits that include cars and airplanes. I could fight and resist, but the reality was the our daughter did not want to build a police car. She wanted to build a tree house and a beach buggy with purple seats.  I swallowed my pride and added two Friends kits to our cart.

The next few days were long. All our daughter thought about was the arrival of her kits. When the FedEx truck arrived she literally jumped up and down holding her purple Lego boxes. Her brother was jumping with her and they ran to their room and began to build. She loved every aspect of the kits and they built one construction after another. I watched and quietly swallowed my pride. These kits made my daughter incredibly happy and for that I am grateful.

It has been nonstop building here ever since. Our daughter wakes each day and is excited to build. There is a lot of complex storyline-based play with the kits, and a new kit has been added to the mix. Her mini-figs have found their way out of the horse shows and into dragon castles. However, they always go home. She prides herself in setting up her “Lego Village” each night based on whatever storyline she created during the day. She is enamored by the animals in each set and has even used random bricks to build them a mini-barn. She is happy and incredibly proud.

In the end, despite the protests of myself and others, Lego Friends has become one of the biggest selling lines in Lego history and Lego sales to girls has tripled since 2011. Apparently, either parents feel more comfortable buying their daughters the Friends line, or girls want to build with the Friends line. I’m not sure which scenario is true for each family, and in the end does it matter? The most important thing is that girls are now building. They are gaining confidence, developing spatial and math skills, figuring out how things work, and having fun. There are aspects of the line that I do not agree with. I think that the animated characters on the web page are too old and sexualized for the target audience and our daughter is a bit confused why all of her boxes and instructions are purple. Maybe this line could have been sold with boy and girl mini-figs, since boys like my son and his friends love her kits too.

I will let Lego know my feelings on these points, right when I finish sweeping up my glass house.


  1. Levine, Susan, et al. “Early Sex Differences in Spatial Skill.” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 35. No.4 (1999), 940-949.


How a Dragon Helped My 3-Year-Old Understand Internal Combustion Engines

Hideous Zippleback. Photo from

My daughter has loved the movie How to Train Your Dragon since the first time she watched it around 18 months old. Eventually I purchased the book The Art of How to Train Your Dragon so we could continue to adore the movie without necessarily watching it all the time. While it’s not a proper kids’ book, it’s made its way into our bedtime routine more often than not.

One dragon I’ve emphasized from the start is the Hideous Zippleback, the two-headed dragon with an ingenious skill. I’ve had my daughter memorize “one head makes flammable gas, the other makes a spark, together they make fire!” I didn’t really understand why it was so important to me, but I made her repeat it even when she hardly had the words to say it. I had a gut feeling it would come in handy.

Over the last two years of us owning the book, she came to understand the meaning behind the repeated words. Turns out that gut feeling was right, the seemingly simple dragon helped us facilitate conversations about gas stoves—they work the same way as the Hideous Zippleback!—and natural gas safety. Also lighters, gas fireplaces, barbecues, etc.

I thought that was definitively the end of the Hideous Zippleback’s usefulness, but this week my daughter made a statement about cars that made me realize she had no clue how they worked. How did they move? Boy, I can’t believe we’ve spent so much time in cars and never explained a single thing about them to her!

That’s when the Hideous Zippleback made its way back into yet another conversation about modern technology, this time internal combustion engines. Why, it’s like having a tiny Hideous Zippleback in a closed environment, the engine. The power of the explosion makes pistons moves up and down. Make it happen very very fast and the pistons can produce enough kinetic energy to move a car!

Granted it’s not the most detailed or scientific explanation, but keep in mind I’m talking to a 3-year-old. Now she’s very curious about car engines and I promised her we’d pop open the hood next weekend.

So thank you, Hideous Zippleback, for being the most useful dragon ever!

Pensacola MESS Hall: A Hands-On Science Experiment Museum

A temporary sign for a temporary location. My sons in front of the Pensacola MESS Hall. This unique concept in science museums needs to become the standard. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

This summer my sons and I have already paid two visits to Pensacola, Florida’s newest science museum, the Pensacola MESS Hall. Where MESS = Math, Engineering, Science, and Stuff.  My husband is now asking us to join us this week (we had previously gone while he was at work) and we’ll be squeezing in one more visit before the facility temporarily closes on August 18th.

What is the MESS Hall?

At the MESS Hall, everything — and we mean everything — is meant to be hands-on. There is guidance for math and science activities, but the kids can follow the directions… or take things in a completely different direction. There is no wrong answer at the MESS Hall.

Like a real mess hall, museum patrons “order” an experiment at the counter. The experiment choices are offered on a “menu” which is seen on the counter towards the right. The materials for the experiment chosen are presented on a cafeteria-style plastic tray. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

The MESS Hall has this cafeteria feel when you walk in. There are tables with cafeteria-style trays filled with experiment supplies, kids are sitting at the tables performing experiments. There’s a counter in the back corner. Again, like a cafeteria, there’s a menu of “MESS Kit” experiments available, and the kids (and adults!) can walk up to the counter and “order” an experiment to perform.

There is a guidebook to accompany the materials. The guidebook follows the scientific process, presenting the procedure, prompting hypotheses, observation and changing of variables. Then the experimenter is asked to form conclusions.  At the end of the little guidebook is a more thorough explanation.

Where have you been all my life? After years of visiting kids’ museums filled with a few interactive exhibits here and there, projects such as those offered at the MESS Hall are typically tucked in a back corner at other places.  The museum visitors experiencing the scientific method are generally in a large auditorium, participating in a Mr. Wizard’s World-type of program.

A Brief History

The MESS Hall is the brainchild of Dr. Megan Pratt, a chemist and neurobiologist by education, who current serves on the Pensacola City Council and is the education director of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), a research non-profit affiliated with the Florida University System.  Dr. Pratt’s Science Saturdays at the IHMC were so immensely popular, she sought funding to expand the style of hands-on science exploration to a full-time prescence in downtown Pensacola.

As described in this article from earlier this summer, Dr. Pratt received enough funding to run a trial-version of the MESS Hall in Downtown Pensacola during the school districts’ summer vacation. A science experiment in and of itself, so says Dr. Pratt. After this summer trial run, which ends on August 18th, the Friday before school starts in our community, the museum board plans to embark on a fundraising campaign to raise enough capital to establish a larger permanent location in Downtown Pensacola starting in 2013.

My youngest son with another famous face.  He’s taking part in the “Taste Test” experiment, where the subject will taste a strip with the compound “PTC”. PTC is a genetic marker that relates to the ability to taste bitter substances. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Why Do My Sons and I Love the MESS Hall?  Let Me Count the Ways.

  1. There is no right or wrong answer to these experiments.  There is no timeline for conducting the experiments.  Kids can be as messy as they want (or as messy as their parents can handle).
  2. The experiments available cover a wide spectrum of science disciplines: biology, robotics, chemistry, geosciences, electromagnetism, optics and chromatography…among many others.
  3. Your kids don’t want to sit still for experiments?  That’s okay. There are many activities on the periphery: a harmonograph, a Van De Graff generator, hands-on math puzzlers, a wall on which kids can build marble runs, and hallways filled with optical illusions.
  4. Kids are exposed to the scientific method, something I hold near and dear to my heart, in a safe and fun way.
  5. At $5 per person, consider what one gets: unlimited access to experiment materials, space for conducting the experiments — and making the messes, and kids being able to interact with others all in the name of science.
  6. Parents can partake, too!
In this slime experiment, you can see how the materials are presented on a cafeteria-style tray and there’s a laminated booklet that guides the experimenter through the process. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

I hope this idea of a hands-on-only science museum catches on in other locations. Many other museums already have very excellent hands-on/interactive areas within their larger facilities. San Francisco’s Exploratorium led the way as one the earliest hands-on-museum experiences. The Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina, the Discovery Place in Charlotte, North Carolina and the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska all have outstanding programs. My family has also seen awesome traveling programs that are completely hands on, such as the rooms fully of Kapla blocks and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Moneyville program.

Can you tell we like museums just a little?

I can’t wait to see what the future of the Pensacola MESS Hall brings. I overheard one of the volunteer directors mention that the facility has been so popular, he’s confident in their ability to raise the money to continue Dr. Pratt’s dream! I’ll help out as much as I can!

The GeekMoms Podcast #26: Chevy's Mom Engineers Talk Cars and Encouraging Kids' Dreams

General Motors recognizes the importance of having women involved in the development of its cars and had a whole team of mom engineers working on the new Chevy Malibu. GeekMom Nicole Wakelin talks with two members of that team and discusses what it’s like being a woman in a predominantly male field as well as how to encourage kids to pursue their dreams in spite of stereotypes that might tell them otherwise.

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Music: Rebecca Angel

Introduce A Girl To Engineering Day

I am happy to be tackling once again the subject of getting girls into the STEM majors, this time in honor of Introduce A Girl To Engineering Day.

To better understand the problem about why so few women are going in engineering, Intel conducted a study among 1,004 teens to determine their perception of engineering. The study was “designed to determine teens’ perceptions of engineering as well as motivations and barriers for pursuing or not pursuing a career in engineering”. What they found is that lack of familiarity with the field was the main obstacle.

These were some the statistics they got:

Intel Study: Interest in engineering pre-messaging. Image used with permission.
Intel Study: Interest in engineering pre-messaging. Image used with permission.
Intel Study: Reasons to reconsider engineering. Image used with permission.
Intel Study: Reasons to reconsider engineering. Image used with permission.
Intel Study: Post-Messaging Interest Percentage
Intel Study: Post-Messaging Interest Percentage. Image used with permission.


Since you’ve already heard my point of view about Computer Science again and again and again and again, I thought we could celebrate this day with a few words from other people for a change! Following on the train of thought of the Intel study, I was curious to compare among different women in engineering how they were introduced to the field and what they do to pay it forward. I was lucky enough to round up a fantastic and impressive group of women: Wendy Hawkins, the executive director of the Intel Foundation, Erin Wakefield, a senior component design engineer and engineering manager at Intel, and Erin Stropus, a senior systems test engineer and former classmate of mine.


Wendy Hawkins
Wendy Hawkins, photo from LinkedIn profile

WENDY HAWKINS, executive director of the Intel Foundation.

Can you tell our readers a little bit about what you do as the executive director of the Intel Foundation?

One of the things I love about my work is that each day is different from the next. Some days I am focused on designing and developing programs that help advance our objectives around advancing education globally. Other days I am meeting with other philanthropists to figure out ways we can work together more effectively. I do a lot of public speaking on education and philanthropy here in the U.S. and elsewhere. Many days I am working with Intel people all around the world to support their efforts to bring about education improvements in their countries.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I get up every day and go to work knowing that what I do has value beyond the paycheck I earn. That is a gift I treasure. I try to deserve it.

Which of your events do you consider to be the most successful in terms of impact? How does the Intel Foundation quantify success?

Oh my – you are making me choose my favorite child?? I love them all, but the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair has impact and ripple effects that reach many millions of students all around the globe. We know that well above 7 million students participate in science fairs directly tied to this program. We know from research – and from direct experience – that students who get the chance to do real science and engineering, who don’t just learn about the subjects, will carry that experience with them throughout their lives. Many of them actually become scientists and engineers – which is our greatest hope. But, the experience enriches the lives of those who go on to careers in other fields, as well. They learn to think critically, to solve problems, to understand the world around them, and to make good decisions about their lives and health and citizenship, all by drawing on what they have learned. Science and engineering are empowering and exciting fields. Memorizing facts and formulas simply cannot ignite that spark the way rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty – performing experiments, building things, and learning something that no one else in the world knows, because you are the first person to find it – now that is exhilarating.

From your experience, what kind of questions do teens have about engineering?

Unless they are lucky enough to have an engineer in their family, most teens know almost nothing about the field. For starters, in today’s economic climate, teens are pretty amazed by what engineers earn and the data about engineers getting and keeping good jobs. But, I think more than anything, teens are fascinated to learn of how many different ‘flavors’ of engineers there are – the kinds of problems engineers get to solve, the arenas in which they are instrumental to making the world a better place. They cover just about any subject a teen could imagine. Who makes it possible for the rock star to rock? The engineer who designed their lighting and sound equipment. Who is creating the prosthetic devices that allow injured veterans to go on to live full and active lives? Who figures out how to get safe drinking water to people in drought-ravaged regions? Who is designing robotic cars that drive themselves? The whizziest new computing technologies? You name it, and an engineer is making it possible. When teens have the chance to see what engineers actually do, they perk up and get really interested!

Is there a specific message you try to get across to teens about engineering? Specifically to girls?

Engineers change the world. They solve real problems. They improve lives. And, they live good lives themselves. The best way to make sure that engineers pay attention to the problems that girls think are important, is for girls to get in there and become engineers themselves!

When I read in the news about events like the Intel Science Talent Search, I feel like the winners (and most of the participants) are extraordinary kids that “the rest of us” can’t hold a candle to. Is there a push to also introduce the average student to engineering?

Absolutely. The competitions certainly highlight some pretty amazing young people, but there is plenty of work for the rest of us, too. We work with schools across the U.S. and around the world to encourage opportunities for hands-on learning in engineering and science among every student. Robotics programs give all kids a chance to design, build and operate robots. The “Engineering is Elementary” project gives elementary students a taste of what engineering is. Our employees volunteer in schools all over the world to teach about engineering, computers, programming and related subjects. We advocate for high quality science and engineering education locally and nationally. Something relatively new on the scene are ‘maker fairs’ and other in- and out-of-school opportunities for both kids and adults to use tools and actually design and build things, to get a taste of what it means to be an engineer. There is room in the field for students with a wide range of abilities and interests.

As a software engineer and the mother of a toddler, I don’t currently have many opportunities to interact with teenagers. What can I do to participate in Engineers Week and Introduce A Girl To Engineering Day?

Contact your local high school and offer to come visit their classes to talk about your experience as an engineer. What do you love about the field? How did you prepare for your career? What is your life like beyond work? (Do you earn a good living? Can you balance work and family life? Can you teach a hands-on lesson to give the students a taste of what an engineer does?) The National Engineers Week coordinators in your area can help with support materials and often with scheduling to help match you to a school or classroom that will welcome a visit.

I sometimes get questions from non-technical parents about how they can help foster their child’s interest and education in STEM beyond their own level of knowledge. Do you have any suggestions for them?

Robotics clubs and maker fairs are a great introduction to the field for kids as young as elementary school. Books and television shows that showcase the fields of engineering and science can inspire. Science museums often offer classes and camps that encourage and teach. Friends and family who work in the field can be a great resource – have your child interview an engineer, shadow them for a day or ask an engineer to advise and mentor them as they prepare a project to enter in their local (Intel ISEF-affiliated!) science and engineering fair.


Erin Wakefield
Erin Wakefield, senior component design engineer and engineering manager at Intel. Photo from LinkedIn.

ERIN WAKEFIELD, senior component design engineer and engineering manager at Intel.

How were you introduced to engineering?

Throughout high school, I was pretty good at a variety of things but not really good at any one thing. I could have gone in a number of different directions, but there were two main reasons I ended up in computer engineering.

The first reason is that my dad is a computer scientist. Not only is he a computer scientist, but he’s also a big techie and gadget dork.

The second reason is my cousin Stacy – a mechanical engineer who also graduated from the University of Michigan. Growing up, I loved seeing what a strong career woman Stacy was, how she worked at really cool places, traveled all over, and had such a glamorous, corporate life.

Putting my two role models together I ended up with Computer Engineering as my major and have never regretted that decision.

When did you know you wanted to go into engineering?

AOL first became popular while I was in middle school, and my dad was one of the first people I knew to get an account (with a LOT of hours), thus providing me nearly unlimited access to the internet at an early age. In all the hours I spent playing on his computer (when I wasn’t fighting my siblings for the computer or phone line), I loved how intuitive it was to me and how easy it was for me to figure out how to do things and use applications I’d never received any instruction on. I felt if it was that easy for me, I must be good at it.

What college path did you take and why?

University of Michigan, B.S. in Computer Engineering, 2001-2005

Portland State University, Masters in Engineering and Technology Management, 2008-2010

Right after graduating from undergrad at the University of Michigan, I started working at Intel in Hillsboro, Oregon. In 2008, while still working at Intel, I went to Portland State University to get my masters. I was approved for two different masters degrees (engineering management and a technical engineering degree) but decided to only do the management degree in the interest of time. Intel is extremely supportive of continuing education. Intel understands that its engineers need to keep learning throughout their career to stay sharp.

What do you do now?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a number of different Intel products spanning multiple market segments, but all in the field of hardware validation. When I first began at Intel, I worked on post-silicon validation of mainstream CPU and server products.

After working on the CPU and servers team for about two and half years, I wanted to try my hand at something new and moved into a newly formed “start-up” team at Intel – working on pre-silicon validation of an IA based programmable discrete graphics card. During my three years of working on this team I moved first into a technical lead role and then into my first management role, managing a team that grew from three to 17 employees spanning two different Intel sites.

Currently, I work at Intel in Chandler, Arizona (moved from Oregon in November of 2010). I work in validation for a System-on-a-Chip (SOC) product used in consumer electronics, where I manage a team that owns pre- and post-silicon validation of security and codecs for consumer electronics and tablets.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The best part of my job is that it changes every day. There are always exciting new challenges and opportunities, and I never get bored. I also enjoy the fact that I work with some of the smartest people on the planet, and I am constantly learning and growing in my role.

Have you participated in events promoting engineering to teens?

Yes! I am currently the secretary of the Phoenix section of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and have been an active member holding various officer roles since my freshman year of college. One of SWE’s largest initiatives is outreach, and we’re constantly initiating and volunteering for activities to promote and educate K-12 students on STEM careers and opportunities. The SWE sections I’ve worked with have done everything from working with Girl Scout troops on engineering badges to inviting high school students to college campuses to shadowing engineering students throughout their day.

Did you consider the events to be a success?

The STEM outreach events I’ve been involved in have been a HUGE success. Students really seem engaged and excited by the engineering activities we do with them. I think the students also appreciate interacting with an organization like SWE – since it’s a great opportunity to meet strong female mentors in a variety of different engineering fields.

What kind of questions have teens asked you about engineering?

Some of the more common questions I get from teens about engineering are related to the impact of what I do and how engineering benefits society in general. They also often ask about the coolness factor, including details of the technology I work on and what kind of perks and pay I earn as an engineer.

Is there a specific message you try to get across to teens about engineering? Specifically to girls?

I think a lot of young woman in tech fall victim to confidence issues – especially when comparing themselves to their peers. As a result, one of my biggest pieces of advice to young women in tech is to stick with it, not be discouraged, and keep in mind that they’re a lot smarter and more capable than they tend to give themselves credit for. Women bring unique skill sets, perspectives, and opinions into the tech industry – and this diversity is CRITICAL to the success of any organization. Yes – women may have different experiences and knowledge than their male peers, but that’s what makes them so valuable!

Also, I would advise young women to not be afraid to ask questions, especially when starting a new role. Inquisitiveness is good, and since you only get busier as you move through your career, it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow.

Will you be celebrating Introduce A Girl to Engineering Day this year, how?

Both Intel and the Phoenix section of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) are actively participating in Engineer Week (E-Week) of which Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day is a part of. That being said, I’m not personally doing anything this year specifically for that day, but I do plan to actively engage our SWE section, including myself, in doing something for 2013.


Erin Stropus
Erin Stropus, Senior Systems Test Engineer. Photo from LinkedIn.

ERIN STROPUS, Senior Systems Test Engineer

How were you introduced to engineering?

Classic “Engineering” I discovered in high school but the technology world in general was introduced to me by my parents when my dad brought a Commodore 64 home for us to use. Eventually it evolved into the classic desktop computer, which I used to self-teach myself.

When did you know you wanted to go into engineering?

I knew I liked engineering when I was first truly introduced to it in high school and took some more advanced classes. I liked to see what I could create via code in a program, which was quite a feat in of itself since our classroom computers were so terribly slow and not up to the task!

What college path did you take and why?

Computer Science was my major and I started out with a minor in German but ended up majoring in that as well. Both I had studied in my years at high school and enjoyed them. Spoken language is not too different in its basics than computer programming languages: they have syntax, rules, exceptions, and logic that must be followed in order for it to be properly understood. I believe the similarities are what helped me excel in both. As for schooling, I knew I would go straight to a four-year university as my parents had always pushed that goal since I was a child and was an excellent student. In the near future, I may find a time in my busy life to work on grad school – I have looked into both a Masters in Business or Computer Science.

What do you do now?

Straight out of college I was hired at a local branch of a company with locations worldwide and works closely with the government and military as a defense contractor. I currently hold the title of Senior Systems Test Engineer where I am involved in the design, development, and testing of our software products.

Have you participated in events promoting engineering to teens?

For the last six years I have worked for my company, I have helped out during Engineering Week when we invite local high school students to attend to learn about engineering, our jobs, and to hear about real life experiences. I also spoke at an event for local high school girls through MESA (Math Engineering Science Achievement) that was held at Cal State University Channel Islands. Other programs I have had the great opportunity to take part in were career speeches at the schools and Johns Hopkins University Engineering Innovation program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Did you consider the events to be a success?

I do consider the events to be a great help for the kids because I am not much older than they are and they can see how they can attain their goals in the very near future if they apply themselves to their education. I have received many letters of thanks, too, from attendees who say that they have appreciated my specific insights that I have given to them.

What kind of questions have teens asked you about engineering?

The first questions of engineering I have been asked about by students were the types of classes I had to take in school to get my specific job and what my salary is. :) Usually though the specific questions are what types of programming languages used in my workplace, how I get along with my coworkers, and what I hate/enjoy the most about my job.

Is there a specific message you try to get across to teens about engineering?

My points I try to drive home to the kids is that they should work hard on their education and dabble into internships and jobs while taking classes so that they can have experience once they graduate college. I point out that sometimes one may not get the dream job he/she has always wanted but with hard work and dedication, their sacrifices will pay off in the long run.

Will you be celebrating Introduce A Girl to Engineering Day this year, how?

I will be celebrating Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day this year and my workplace has posted information and posters on getting involved. Sadly, this year I will not be able to help out in the event for Engineering Week with the visiting high school students due to a project requiring my full attention and presence.


I am so inspired by these women. They are busy gals no doubt, yet they make time to promote engineering. Not because they get something out of it, not because they have to do it. They are just truly devoted to actively participating in the engineer community and helping youth find their path. Intel’s study delivers a short and powerful message: knowledge is power. For this Introduce A Girl To Engineer Day and Engineers Week, why don’t you help others by paying it forward?

To find a local event, please review the schedule or find a way to get involved!

2012 White House Science Fair

Students, from left, Gaby Dempsey, 12, Kate Murray, 13, and Mackenzie Grewell, 13, read in the Red Room of the White House after setting up their science fair exhibit, Feb. 6, 2012. The three girls, part of the Flying Monkeys First Lego League Team from Ames Middle School in Ames, Iowa, will participate in the second annual White House Science Fair with over 100 students from 45 states. CREDIT: Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert

Nothing like flying marshmallows to keep the secret service busy protecting President Barak Obama. Tuesday was the second annual White House Science Fair. The president seemed to have a blast playing with science yesterday, he even caused a little bit of innocent trouble with 14 year old Maker Faire veteran, Joey Hudy of Phoenix, AZ, as they shot a marshmallow across the bustling East Room of the White House.

A hundred students from 40 different science competitions around the country were honored with an invite to this prestigious event to meet the president personally and show the commander-in-chief what problems the scientific youth today are tackling. He was joined by Bill Nye the Science Guy and Tom Kalil, of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, along with other government officals.

This year’s projects ranged from marshmallow cannons to homemade robots to targeted cancer treatment research. The president was surely excited to meet one particular participant, Samantha Garvey, an Intel Science Talent Search 2012 semifinalist. Samantha completed a study of the mussel life on Long Island while she was homeless. Obama used her project as a perfect example of how even under the most difficult situations, the study of science and engineering can improve ones circumstances.

The President talked with Samantha Garvey, 18, of Bay Shore, N.Y., about her environmental sciences project examining the effect of physical environment and predators on a specific species of mussel, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Feb. 7, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The White House Science Fair was started late 2010 as one of many initiatives to encourage STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education around the nation, fulfilling a commitment he made at the launch of his Educate to Innovate campaign. In an address to the students, the president explained that his administration and its partners are working to educate 100,000 science and math teachers and to train 1 million additional STEM graduates over the next decade, it will be known as the 100kin10 initiative.

“As an American, I’m proud of you, and as your president, I think we need to make sure your success stories are happening all across our country,” he said. “Let’s train more teachers, let’s get more kids studying these subjects.”

The president has asked for $80 million in the yet-to-be-approved Department of Education budget, to be invested specifically into STEM teachers. This would cover programs that allow undergraduates to get both a STEM degree and a teaching certificate (including time spent in the classroom honing their skills). An additional $22 million has been donated by 14 private companies, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As another part of the 100kin10 initiative public programs such as Teach for America and National Math and Science Initiative will recruit and prepare nearly 15,000 STEM teachers around the nation.

Bookmark This For 2012 Fun

fun dates for 2012, add celebrations to your calendar, plan for family fun in 2012,
Photo by Joe Lanman via Flickr, CC by 2.0 (


January 13:  Friday the 13th

The upcoming year offers us three chances to enjoy Friday the 13th.    What a great reason to read a scary book and show a scary movie. It’s also a perfect opportunity to make some creepy foods that normally only show up at Halloween parties. We suggest meatball mice, breadstick fingers, spooky apples, wicked witch cupcakes , and  Jack Skellington cake pops. Celebrate again in April and July!


January 18: Thesaurus Day  

Play the old game Blackbird. It’s simple yet advances creative thinking and is sure to promote laughter. Alter tradition a little by using a thesaurus instead of a dictionary. If you don’t know how to play, it’s easy. Each person takes a turn asking a question aloud, then opens the book at random and without looking, jabs his or her finger somewhere on the selected page. The challenge? To make that word or some part of its definition answer the question. The questions must be somewhat open-ended rather the yes/no variety. For example: Why do I have to get up so early every day? Will I become a movie animator? How does my sister always get the last cookie? What do aliens really look like?


February 9:  Birthday of Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865)  

Bently was the first to successfully photograph snowflakes. Delve into the art and science of snow in these 8 amusing ways.  If you’re shut in by snow (or for any other reason) employ these cabin fever cures and toss in some brain challenges . Don’t forget to get out there and play in the snow!


February 17: Random Acts of Kindness Day 

Browse through this list of kindness inspiration, find ways to include the smallest children as you show them how to do good deeds,  and learn more about compassionate living.


February 29:  Leap Year   

This once-every-four-years day can’t go by without commemoration. Find all sorts of ways to leap. Have jumping contests. Tell tall tales. Try a leap of faith (in yourself) by attempting something entirely new.


March 1:  International Hug A Librarian Day

Libraries are awesome for at least these nine reasons  and librarians make this possible. Go ahead, hug your favorite librarians. You might also want to offer them gingerbread superhero cookies  (because they’re our heroes) or share them with any of these banned book projects.   If you’re really ambitious, start up your own tiny library.


March 3:  Iditarod race  

Commemorate one of the toughest (and most egalitarian) races in the world. Your kids will enjoy projects, stories, and race history.   For more in-depth information, go to Northern Light Media to find blog posts, books , and videos by the folks who are on the scene each year.


March 14: Pi Day

Have a Pi Day competition,  play pi games, sing along to pi-themed music,  wear pi-related gear, and help even your youngest children learn the secret of the circle.   Don’t forget to eat actual pie!


April 1:  April Fool’s day

You know what to do.


April 22: Earth Day

We at GeekMom understand that this is one to act on every day.  To find ways to help you live more lightly on Ma Earth, check out 63 small changes that make a big difference, one in a series of highly useful tips from GeekMom’s own Kris Bordessa via Attainable Sustainable.  You might also want to find out how to make your back yard a Certified Wildlife Habitat. And remember that what you buy (or don’t buy) has a powerful influence on today’s marketplace.


May 2:   National Play Your ‘Ukulele Day

What’s stopping you from learning to play Bohemian Rhapsody or the theme from Super Mario Brothers on your own ukulele? For all things ukulele, check out Geek Offspring Brad Bordessa’s site.


May 4:  Star Wars Day (May the 4th Be With You)  

Today’s the day to recite your favorite lines, make Star Wars crafts , whip up Star Wars inspired pancakes, follow the instructions for a Star Wars-themed quiet book,  and to engage in the requisite light saber duel.


May 5: Free Comic Book Day  

Find out which indie comic book stores near you participates and what you need to know to celebrate. You might want to learn about the evolution of today’s comics. Click here for a brief look and here for a more extensive historical survey.  Also consider creating your own comic strips or books, even stage a re-enactment of your favorite scenes in the back yard.


May 13:  IEEE Global Engineering Day

Encourage your offspring to enjoy the challenges and pleasure of pre-engineering teamwork with First Lego League,  Odyssey of the Mind, Science Oympiad, and Destination Imagination.


May 25:  Towel Day

As The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy advises us “A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.”  Potential towel-related activities include all possible reasons to get soaked, from hot tub to ocean. You might toss in towel snapping lessons for those who haven’t yet hit locker room age. Make it a cross genre celebration if you’d like. South Park’s Towelie famously reminds us “don’t forget to bring a towel.”


June 11: ET turns 30

Any ET event needs to include pizza and Reese’s Pieces. You might add in bike racing. Or set up teams that work together to turn junk into “phone home” devices.


June 16: Birthday of Barbara McClintock (1902)  

This Nobel Prize winning scientist worked with plants to advance the field of cytogenetics.  In the spirit of this tireless researcher, learn chemistry using pennies, understand more about math by making paper plate models,  apply the scientific method at the grocery store, and use light to make your walls into examples of geometry.


June 30:  First book in Harry Potter series released (1997)

Do you remember opening a Harry Potter book for the first time? This series inspires people of all ages to delve deeper into areas of interest and offers rich educational opportunities across a whole range of subjects.  For more fun, play  Muggle Quidditch  (and uphold gender equality in the game), make a Voldemort head, create Hogwart-y looking textbooks, and start rereading the books all over again.


July 12:  SDCC 

First day of the San Diego Comic-con. If you haven’t attended a con (a favorite GeekMom activity) check out what you   and your kids will enjoy.


July 12  Birthday of R. Buckminster Fuller   (1895)

Celebrate the accomplishments of this self-taught, renown thinker. Boost your child’s brainpower through knitting, clapping games , and subversive use of wall maps. And for some real Bucky skills, try making a geodesic dome model using newspaper.


August 13:  International Lefthander Day 

If you are a lefthander, revel in a day meant to reverse 364 other days of inconvenience. Let everyone know about famous lefties, brush up on some handedness research, learn to crochet or play the guitar lefthanded. Rearrange things to better suited your handedness. On this day, righthanders should use their left hands to see what it’s like!

August 22: Birthday of Paul Nipkow (1860)

This inventor pioneered the method necessary for the world’s first mechanical television system.   Remember Paul by turning TV watching in your home into a creative act. Make up alternative prequels or sequels for your favorite programs. Talk about the motivations of characters, the trajectory of story lines, and the way real life contrasts with TV life.  Write and film your show. Learn how marketers use mass media to make children into whiningly persistant consumers. Check out Center for Media Literacy and Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood for resources to help young people develop critical thinking skills related to media.


September 8: First Star Trek episode aired (1966)

Learn all sorts of science based on Star Trek  and carry on the mandate to “ explore strange new  worlds” by searching your neighborhood for alien species.

September 19:  Talk Like a Pirate Day

Enjoy a pirate-y festival, translate your conversations into pirate-ese, , and consider taping those conversations.


October 11:  Birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884)  

This champion of civil rights and global human rights got her start as a teacher of dance and calisthenics. Celebrate this forthright woman’s achievements by learning to make your own geeky music. Try writing new lyrics for a song you already know or learn using sheet music of your favorite theme songs.  And check out the website of GeekMom’s resident songstress, Rebecca Angel.


November 9:  Birthday of Carl Sagan (1934)

This famous astronomer brought his fascination down to earth for a whole generation. You might want to learn more about his childhood and check out his books.  Make sure to celebrate too. In his honor you might choose to wear a turtleneck, learn to recognize a constellation,  visit a public observatory or planetarium near you, take a full moon walk to enjoy your neighborhood by lunar light, or watch Wonders of the Universe.


December 16: Birthday of Arthur C. Clarke (1917)

Celebrate this and all clever sci-fi writers. Revisit your favorite sci-fi short stories or films, first looking up something about the writers’ lives to help you understand their influences. Try looking at today’s news from the perspective of time travelers from the past or future. And to help create the next generation of sci-fi writers, get  your kids to predict the future.


Share with your fellow GeekMom readers what other dates we should be celebrating!


Antikythera Mechanism Built Out of LEGO Bricks

I’m not even going to pretend I understand the finer details of this – but the fact that I’m not a mathematician doesn’t make this project any less awesome. Andrew Carol is an Apple engineer by day, but in his spare time? He’s busy creating things like an Antikythera Mechanism out of LEGO bricks. Modeled after the ancient Greek original, it calculates the date and time of solar and lunar eclipses over a hundred year period. With more than 100 gears and 7 differential gearboxes, it’s accurate to within a day or two. Carol covers the abstract math and the construction of the device in detail, in case you might like to try it.

Of course, not all of us are ready to tackle such a huge project. For those of us who would tear our hair out in large clumps trying to figure out those gear ratios have a little less time on our hands, Carol has created a smaller project that seems pretty easy to replicate at home. A compass built out of LEGO bricks. No magnet required. Based on ancient Chinese engineering, the device – called a south facing chariot – is part steampunk, part genius. New Scientist shares a step-by-step guide, complete with a parts list and a video of the compass being built. Guess what we’ll be tackling this week?

STEM to STEAM: The Importance of Arts in Science

For this month’s Muse of Nerds, I quickly grabbed onto the STEM to STEAM movement (adding ‘arts’ to the technical.) Creativity is the foundation for advancement in all fields. The arts — writing, music, art, theater and dance — paired with science, technology, engineering and math, foster a relationship between both sides of the brain for maximum human innovation potential. Trying to place STEM at the top of the educational plant stifles growth.

In 1858, Friedrich Kekule published a paper that showed, visually, how atoms bond chemically. He continued to play with the design until in 1865, he put carbon as a six-sided ring (hexagon) with chains and links, which gave rise to organic chemistry. Kekule started out as an architect before switching to the new science of chemistry. The visualization of chemical bonding didn’t come out of experiments in the lab, but a daydream while riding the bus. His brain looked at chemistry with an architect’s eye.

Daniel Tammet holds the European world record for reciting pi from memory. Daniel can “sense” if a number is prime. I think it’s important to mention that Daniel has high-functioning autism because many educators tend to steer children on the Autism spectrum towards STEM fields. However, Daniel uses the arts to “see” numbers. He is a lucid writer with his book, Born on a Blue Day. The way he was able to memorize pi was by creating a visual landscape in his mind. Clearly, art and math are tied for him.

Science News had a special issue on August 14, 2010  devoted to our minds on music. It was a fascinating look at how music influences our growth emotionally and mentally. In it there was a quote from Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, “In terms of brain imaging, studies have shown listening to music lights up, or activates, more of the brain than any other stimulus we know.” That’s just listening! As Daniel Levitin, director of the music perception, cognition and expertise laboratory at McGill University in Montreal explained, “Music processing is distributed throughout the brain…and playing an instrument, in particular, is an ensemble activity. It involves paying attention, thinking ahead, remembering, coordinating movement and interpreting constant feedback to the ears, fingers and, in some cases, lips. It is one of the most complicated tasks that we have.”

How could that kind of thinking be considered extracurricula? That’s the saddest part. STEM in education is not just getting the funding for special programming, but amazing mental tasks like music aren’t even in the BASIC CURRICULUM!

This very morning I was teaching a creative writing class to some junior high students. The stories will be used to later design and program robots (based on challenges the writing students come up with). The writing students have to be creative to make their challenges cohesive with their story lines. The robotic students have to be creative in designing and programming robots. Tying the two endeavors together gives the project more weight.

Have you ever been to a science museum? Did you attend any of the fantastic theater shows? Watching a story unfold is basic human communication. Lecturing is not.

My children were taking a botany course and convinced their teacher to demonstrate their plant family identification ability using interpretive dance. Seriously. Their teacher was cool about it and let them try. They took all the information they knew about these plant families (memorizing), decided on what was the most important and distinguishable traits (critical thinking) and then came up with movements to convey the information in a clear way (innovation.) By using their full body to translate the concepts, more parts of their brain were used. Do you think they will remember the information better than if they wrote it out on a test? Can your fingers remember a song on the piano from when you were a child? Muscle memory is a powerful tool.

My husband teaches genetics and is frustrated at the lack of “creative and independent thought” the students portray. Students walk in the classroom lacking good reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. The scientists getting prizes don’t spit out what they were taught. They dream, they doodle, they hum, they dance their way to success.

Vote for Your Favorite STEM Video Game

Sci-Heroes Saves the Day Cooney Prize STEM video game challenge
Sci-Heroes Save the Day entry in the STEM Video Game Challenge. Art © Tim Goldman

Inspired by the White House’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign, the Joan Cooney Ganz Center issued this challenge: design a mobile app that engages kids while teaching them the STEM skills: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Developers were invited to enter prototypes to win the National STEM Video Game Challenge, with a prize of $50,000 towards the production of their final game.

There’s another prize that’s up to you: the People’s Choice Award, which brings the winning project $25,000. There are many great game prototypes entered, featuring a huge array of gameplay and skills. Among the entrants you’ll find Sci-Heroes Save the Day, a prototype I created with my friend, the awesome artist Tim Goldman.

Sci-Heroes Save the Day will be the first in a series of apps that teach science using science fiction. The science games will be embedded in a comic book story, and completing the game will be essential to furthering the story. The evil Dr. Spectacle is using her super-charged glasses to wreak havoc on the city? Maybe a smoke screen will stop her. To the lab! Here’s a video of the prototype, and you can try it for yourself on our website.

I hope to make this game a reality with lots of great activities, animation, and sound design, so help a GeekMom out with a vote, won’t you? And while you’re there, send some love to the other worthy entrants. Bringing any and all quality STEM games to market is a good thing.

Kari Byron, Mythbuster Mom: How Do You Get Kids Interested in Science?

KariCloseUp-e1308329695929GeekMom is thrilled to bring our readers another column by Kari Byron, the female face on the hit Discovery Channel show MythBusters and host of the Science Channel’s new Head Rush. Kari sends us regular updates on life as a MythBuster Mom.

Science is hot right now. Everywhere I travel parents are in a panic to get their kids interested in science. I guess one day, America woke up and realized our pipeline of home-grown engineers, scientists, and inventors was drying up.

Let’s face it: subjects like science and math have an unfortunate reputation for being boring and dry and, dare I say, even “nerdy.” Honestly, that is how I felt when I was 12. Science was so often taught as a list of facts to memorize: “List the components of a cell,” “What does H2O stand for?” “Who is the father of the theory of relativity?” Snore. I didn’t understand why science couldn’t be more like art class. So I can understand where kids are coming from today.

Another huge roadblock for students is the lack of role models in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (what the President calls the STEM initiative) in our media-driven world of glamour, fame, and money. Close your eyes and picture a scientist. Do you see an awkward nerdy man with bad posture, glasses and a lab coat? Who wants to be him when you are inundated with exciting visions of gorgeous movie stars and rich athletes?

Solutions aren’t easy. Parents ask me, “How do I get my kid into science?”

The good news is that if you are asking that question it probably means you are half way there. Being involved is an amazing start. A parent is the most important role model, regardless of what your eye-rolling tween says.

I like to teach science to kids like I teach art. Get their hands dirty. Engage their natural curiosity. Drop Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke and let it explode all over the backyard. Snap! That’s chemistry. Show them science isn’t just answers on an exam, but the world all around you. Take a nature walk with a camera. Bring home pictures of animals and find out what they eat, when they sleep. Snap! That’s biology. I also like to call it hiding the broccoli in the cheese sauce. Making science more hands-on creates a base of scientific literacy as well as quality time bonding. Your kids will be learning in spite of themselves. That look of wonder and discovery you see in their faces will become addictive -– for both of you.

That’s how MythBusters became a juggernaut of science engagement for kids. We weren’t trying to teach science, we were just having fun while using science as a tool. They see us having fun and join us on the journey.

There you have it, sage advice from a totally unqualified former art major who now loves science and uses it every day.