Debbie Sterling on Inspiring The Next Generation of Female Engineers (Transcript)

And so I thought, what the heck, I’m going to take ME101, just give it a try because I couldn’t shake that advice that she had given me. And I was so worried that it was going to be my first F. I was terrified, but I went into the class and in that class I finally learned what engineering really was.

And to my surprise, we weren’t fixing train engines. In that class we got to invent and design things. We had assignments like make a catapult out of a soda bottle and a piece of string and five paper clips and a piece of foam core. It was so cool and so much fun. And in that class, I learned that engineering is really the skill set to build anything you dream up in your head, whether it’s a website or a mobile app, to a bridge, to a highway, anything. That’s what engineers build. And what an amazing skill set. How empowering to be able to build whatever you want.

But the problem was I felt kind of alone. I was always one of a handful of girls in my classes, and I did not fit in. In fact, only 20% of undergraduate degrees in engineering and tech and science are awarded to women so it’s a real problem. But I stuck with it. I loved the major, and I wanted to do it. That is, until I took an engineering drawing class. This was about halfway through my major and I thought engineering and drawing, this is going to be great. I love art. Finally, I’m going to get to draw.

The problem was in this class you had to draw in perspective, draw in 3D and for some reason I had this total mental block. I was really struggling with the material. And our final assignment we had to put our drawings up on the wall for critique. And you could tell, all the guys in the class — there were about 80 of them and five of us girls — the guys had scribbled their drawing ten minutes before and slapped it up on the wall. Meanwhile, I had spent hours the entire weekend. I didn’t even go to any parties, working on my drawing.

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And when the professors went around the room and they got to my drawing, they took a look at it and they looked out into the room. And they said, “Raise your hand if you think Debbie should pass this class.”

And I just stood there beet red, humiliated, looking around. Some people are kind of half raising their hands. I was horrified. And they’re like, “Come on, raise your hand if you think Debbie should pass the class.” The room was silent.

Finally, my good friend piped up and said, “How dare you? How dare you humiliate her in front of this room? She obviously has put a lot of effort in; and it’s your responsibility to teach her, not to make fun of her.”

Well, I’m glad he said that, but even still, the tears were streaming down my face. And I ran out of the classroom and I thought, this isn’t for me. I’m not naturally good at this stuff, maybe I should just give up engineering. A lot of girls around this time in their college career think the same thing.

But my friend came out, and he said, “Debbie, don’t give up. You can do it, and I’ll help you. We just have to work hard together. You’ll pick up this stuff. I know you will”.

So him and I used to go from that moment on to the library. And sometimes we’ll be there until three, four in the morning studying. And in that library I saw all of those guys from my classes, the guys who I thought just knew it and it was so easy for them. They were there at the library at three in the morning. I caught them. And I realized that it’s not about being a born genius, it’s about how hard you work. This stuff takes a lot of work. But I worked really hard, and I re-did that drawing and I earned my degree.

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Years later I did some research into this stuff, and I actually learned that I was at a disadvantage. Like a lot of other girls, I had underdeveloped spatial skills.

The other interesting thing that I learned is that kids who score better on spatial skills tests grew up playing with construction toys. Well, I thought isn’t this a shame. Me and my little sister growing up, our parents never bought us Legos or erector sets or Lincoln logs. We all thought that those were boys’ toys. I thought, those toys have been marketed to boys for over a hundred years. And they get them interested in math and science. Meanwhile, all we get are the dolls and makeup kits and it’s not fair.

So I thought, well, I’m an engineer now. I have a degree. I can make anything I want now. I’m going to make an engineering toy for girls, and I’m going to give them the opportunity that I didn’t have so that they can discover a passion for engineering much earlier than I did.

So I got to work. I quit my job and I worked out of my apartment for months, making a prototype out of thread spools and wooden dowels, pieces I could find from the hardware store. I wanted to find a way to help girls develop their spatial skills. I did all of this research. I met with little girls, and I found something really interesting. I’d buy construction toys and watch them play with them to see how they could be improved and time and time again the girls would get bored with the toys.

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