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Women in Aerospace: Making engineering accessible to girls

Amy Sprague

The Women in Aerospace clubThe Women in Aerospace club

Ellie ForbesWomen in Aerospace founder Ellie Forbes

A&A Ph.D. student Ellie Forbes is frustrated with the reasons she hears why more women are not in the aerospace field. She says of her own experience, “Plasma is a field with seven percent women nationally. In the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physicists, only four percent of the membership are women. I keep hearing explanations that we need to offer more childcare and maternity leave to attract more women to the field, but that’s not what’s keeping college women from pursuing plasma studies.”

Forbes continues, “Girls don’t pursue these engineering fields because they’re told that they can’t and they don’t see any women in these fields. So one of the ways we can change this whole dynamic is by telling them they can be engineers, showing them women engineers, and reaching them at a young age.”

This is the reason she founded the Women in Aerospace club last year. “We need to show girls that it is really fun and cool to be interested in science and math.”

a stomp rocketOne of the stomp rockets, “Samoa,” named after the famous Girl Scout cookie.

As one of the newest engineering clubs at UW, founded in 2017, Women in Aerospace has been getting traction engaging girls in elementary and middle schools. With approximately 20 members, they have been reaching out to organizations in the Seattle area for opportunities and potential partnerships. And they have been met with enthusiasm.

For the club, the Girl Scouts are a timely and receptive audience. With the appointment of former Jet Propulsion Labs rocket scientist Sylvia Acevedo as CEO of the Girl Scouts in 2017, the organization has a greater urgency to emphasize science and technology. New badges have been released this year in engineering, computer science, space science, robotics, and mechanical engineering.

Women in Aerospace specializes in a range of sharing sessions and activities to groups like the Girl Scouts. Over the summer, they visited Camp River Ranch outside of Seattle for a weekend workshop. A few Women in Aerospace members who had participated in SARP, the rocketry club at the UW, taught the girls about propulsion and facilitated making stomp rockets. The girls built their own rockets, learned about how to make the nose cone and fins more effective and put a lot of thought into naming their creations.

Nadiah JenkinsWomen in Aerospace scribe Nadiah Jenkins.

Club member Nadiah Jenkins explains why she see this outreach effort as so important: “Often, people try to explain away the gender disparity in engineering by saying girls aren't interested in how things work, or they can't focus on the 'scientific process.' While working with the Girl Scouts, I saw girls methodically testing and iterating through their designs, asking us how to make their rockets fly further and higher and taking pride in what they were discovering. This is the research experience in a nutshell. We want to encourage girls and young women to continue engaging in that process.”

Anna Shepard with Girl ScoutsAnna Sheppard fields questions at a Girl Scout meeting.

Anna Sheppard, the club’s treasurer, attended Seattle Girl Scout Troop 44407’s meeting as they started the aMUSE Journey badge series, focusing on all of the different roles women play and the accessibility and perception of those roles. Sheppard shared her experience of her ROTC training in college, being an officer in the Air Force, testing fighter plane engines and joining A&A as a Ph.D. student. She also shared some of the gender dynamics she has noticed along the way.

The troop of fifth grade girls explored many of her different roles, including problem solver, advocate for women and engineer. Linnea, age 10, said, “That is so great that Anna spent her evening coming to talk to us. The meeting flew by and everyone was so engaged. I learned a lot about designing airplanes.”

Girl Scouts with Women in AerospaceWomen in Aerospace doing stomp rockets at the Girl Scout’s Camp River Ranch.

For her part, Sheppard says, “Growing up, I had no role models in engineering, and I think it's important to emphasize that the problems engineers face are ubiquitous. Engineering relies on many disparate fields that interest girls. There's math and science, sure, but engineering also requires design, coding, logic, creativity, construction, and trial and error. At the end of the day, engineering is fun, and that shouldn't be limited to just boys."

As for the club’s outreach strategy, they are looking to engage more groups like the Girl Scouts and to build on their efforts at the Museum of Flight.

Says Forbes, “There is a cultural issue with math in general. Math is hard, but it’s hard to understand why it’s cool to be bad at math. That’s something we’re going to have to change.”

Originally published November 6, 2018