As children, we watched shuttle launches from grade school classrooms and viewed the astronauts within as heroes. We studied the solar system they explored, imagined ourselves flying to distant planets, and built pinhole viewers out of toilet paper tubes for every solar eclipse.
The wonder of outer space bewitches boys and girls alike, but far fewer women than men make it into the ranks of adults working in space science. Girls take high-level mathematics and science courses at around the same rate as boys in high school, but gender disparities emerge at the undergraduate collegiate level, where women in science focus more heavily in the biological sciences, and earn a mere 18 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science and in engineering.
Things get worse in the workplace, when nearly one in five women with a STEM degree (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will leave the workforce.
But that’s not the case among the Intelligent Robotics group at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., where seven women—software engineers, computer scientists, and researchers—are developing instruments slated for deployment on a lunar rover in 2020. Their tools will help the rover autonomously navigate, probe, and analyze the moon’s surface. Not only are their jobs literally out-of-this-world cool, but these women make up nearly a quarter of their 30-person team—a fairly high percentage among a group of engineers and roboticists.
Most of them are also moms. They juggle child care and commutes like every other parent, all while building highly technical instruments that will help solve some of the most challenging questions about our universe. We enlisted four of these successful NASA moms for their insights on paying it forward to the next generation.
“I always point out that it’s really fun,” says Tamar E. Cohen, a computer scientist on the Intelligent Robotics group at NASA Ames, who talks to her son’s elementary-school classes about her work and focuses on getting the girls interested.
“I tell them that I do a lot of math at work, and that I do cool things like 3D visualizations, mapping, and geometry. I think that’s something that girls can kinda hear—oh, she works at NASA, she loves math, she uses math.”
The best thing parents can do is expose their girls to ideas and activities that involve STEM. We pulled more insights from Intelligent Robotics teammates Jennifer Heldmann, Erin Fritzler, Tamar E. Cohen and Hyunjung Kim, who shared their experiences in engineering and mathematics. They also gave us their best advice for parents who want to know what they can do to encourage their daughter’s interest in STEM.
Here, their top seven tips:
1. Be the example
Don’t underestimate the power of seeing a successful woman in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. If you’re in a field related to science, talk to your daughter frequently about what you do:
“I tell my daughter that Mommy works at NASA and studies planets. We also tell each other what we are going to do at school and work each day, respectively. Most recently I’ve been saying that Mommy has to go to work so I can drive a robot.” —Jennifer
“My son knows that I work for NASA, that we’re testing instruments on a rover, and that it will all go to the moon someday. Occasionally we stay up late at night and lay on the front lawn and look at the moon and the stars together and talk about the rover we’re sending there in a few years.” —Tamar
Even if she’s too young to understand what you do at work, it still matters that you’re interested in your job:
“My daughter is too small to have any idea of what I do. When I say I’m going to work, she thinks I’m going to paint or color. But sometimes she’ll say that when she grows up, she wants to be like me. That is very good—she believes that I’m enjoying my work, whatever I do.” —Hyunjung
2. Don’t work at NASA? Outsource the example
Chances are you know teaching professionals and other women in STEM fields who wouldn’t mind talking up their work. Take advantage of your network:
“Every year I try do a NASA talk for my son’s class. I’m happy to do it for the boys, but I’m really there for the girls. When kids raise their hands, I’m always picking the girls. All the kids are excited about NASA because they know what it is, and they know when the rover went to the moon, so I can talk to them about actual science experiments we’re doing right now in space. I can tell them, “I work there and I’m a woman. You could, too.” Make that part of their day-to-day instead of just having them be a nurse or a teacher. I now it’s not like that anymore, but it kind of still is, because they need to see role models.” —Tamar
“I recently started volunteering in my son’s kindergarten class and have been working with the kids on simple robotics and aerodynamics lessons and activities.”—Erin
“I think it would be great to have extra support or girls-only classes in math and science, taught by women, at the middle and high school level. Girls should have good examples to follow and a safe place to make mistakes as they learn.” —Tamar
3. Connect her interests and her career opportunities
Show-and-tell goes a long way when it lets your little girl put her love of robots together with the idea of playing with them her entire life:
“Take her on field trips, to NASA events and launches, or to open houses. Demonstrate that she can be a part of whatever she wants.” —Jennifer
“My son has come to my work a few times, and sometimes I show him the software that I work on. It’s a very easy thing to explain since I can show him pictures of the robots we work with or of the lakes or deserts where we do our exploration. He further connects with NASA work when we go to science museums.” —Tamar
“Point out that although you don’t always see us (women) behind the scenes, there are many brilliant, beautiful, hard-working women at NASA and in the science or engineering fields.” —Erin
4. Do science-related activities together
Regardless of your expertise in science, math or engineering or technology, participate in fun activities related to them with your kids:
“It’s hard to actively encourage your children to pursue study in subjects that can feel overwhelming. But expose your girls to math and science at a young age, and make it fun and cool by doing experiments together. It’s okay if you don’t know how it will work out, that is what science is about—trial and error, learning from your mistakes, creating a new hypothesis, and doing it again until you succeed. Tell your kids that you are learning, too. Make it fun and very interactive.” —Erin
“When I walk around the playground at night with my daughter, I tell her to look at the sky. I tell her that there might be water on the moon, that a robot will go to the moon to find out if we can build the lunar base, and that maybe she could live on the moon someday.” —Hyunjung
“I’m excited for when he gets older and has more interest in what I do. I”ve already bought electronics and robotics kits that we can work on together.” —Erin
5. Provide opportunities for her to engage—on her own time
Making sure that girls get time to explore their interests by themselves is equally important—nearly all of the moms remembered spending time alone with science kits, a computer, or during a trip to Space Camp:
“Buy your daughter the female Research Institute kit from LEGO.” —Hyunjung
“My dad was a research physicist at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, NY. We got to go into his labs and play on the mainframe, and we had one of the first PCs at home, which he let me program on and play with. (In my husband’s family, it was considered an expensive, off-limits machine. He’s an acupuncturist.) My dad encouraged me and my sister to have complete freedom to choose any field we wanted within engineering. I’m very thankful for that.” —Tamar
“My mom let me work at the science museum in high school, helped me go to Space Camp, set up the telescope in the backyard to look at the moon, and provided quiet study space at home so I could do my homework.” —Jennifer
6. Encourage long-term commitment to challenging goals
Girls should feel like big goals for their future can be accomplished in small steps, or that they can revisit forgotten dreams at any time:
“Never quit on a dream. Hard work always pays off — follow her dreams no matter what anyone says. Women bring a variety of different skills and life experiences to the profession, and if you work hard and are competent in your work, you will succeed. It is really not a gender issue—it is a competence issue. Diligent preparation, hard work and internal drive are what count. If they can believe it, they will see it.” —Erin
“I still dream of walking on the moon or Mars, and apply to be one at every opportunity. Who knows? I may get there. In the meantime, I have a great job working on instruments that will go in my place.” —Erin
“When I was very little I wanted to be an astronaut, but I ended up getting my PhD in human computer interactions. Then I saw a notice that NASA was hiring a post-doctoral researcher in my field. I remembered my childhood dream and applied.” —Hyunjung
7. Help her be fearless
Being the only girl in her class is the smallest example of what might make your daughter feel insecure if she’s into science and tech. But hurdles to succeeding in STEM fields aren’t going anywhere soon, so help her think about recognizing them and moving past them:
“I switched careers and basically started from scratch at age 30. I had to fight the insecurities I had with myself and bury any thoughts that I wasn’t good enough. Then I was selected for an internship at Ames, out of hundreds of applicants. I am still not convinced that I was the most qualified, as I had only recently returned to school, but my mentor clearly saw something in me and gave me the opportunity. Over the next 8 years, I have had many moments where I just have to step back and reflect on what I am doing and how it just feels right for me. I feel more and more certain every day.” —Erin
“My husband is a scientist in Korea. I came here alone to work at NASA, and since July 2013, have been raising my 3-year-old daughter by myself. Everyday is challenging for me. But my husband is supportive, and I get to work with smart people who love and enjoy their work.” —Hyunjung
“My major in college was Astrogeophysics, and the physics side was especially male-dominated. I made a decision early on that I wasn’t going to worry about what the boys said or thought—I was just going to work hard and do my best to get me to where I wanted to be, which was to one day to work for NASA. That strategy seems to have worked.” —Jennifer