So first, a little bit about me. I am an aerospace engineer and an electrical engineer. I have two degrees of science (bachelor’s and master’s) and am completing a doctorate. I’ve had internships at some major engineering companies and government. I eat, sleep, and breathe STEM. But how?
Well in short? My parents got me started early…like elementary school early. From the moment I can remember speaking, my parents told me I could and would be an engineer someday.
1. What Barbies? Bring on the gadgets.
While other girls received Barbie dolls for Christmas, my parents bought me “education-type” stuff like telescopes, astronomy gear, cars, a globe, science kits, etc. No, seriously. I’ve never owned a Barbie doll in my life. Sure, I had a black doll or two — which is good for building a black girl’s confidence — but no meaningless toys from what I can recall. My parents were more concerned with nurturing my mind, especially for science and math.
2. Choosing the best elementary and middle schools.
My parents did ALL they could to put my younger sisters and I in good elementary schools. (My sisters are a lawyer and a medical doctor, by the way.) The neighborhood public schools were not going to cut it. They just were not good enough. However, it wasn’t like my parents could afford to send us to a fancy private school either. So they helped us study and we tested into magnet schools, parochial schools (which were much cheaper than fancy private schools), etc.
3. Extra math (or science), please? Extracurriculars on hold.
In middle school, I had a great teacher who noticed me and suggested to my parents that I join her and another girl for after school tutoring. She felt it important that we learn higher level (i.e., algebra) math rather than stay where we were. My parents let it happen, and that allowed me to hit the ground running in high school math.
Outside of extra math, though, I was not allowed to join extracurriculars early on. While some people may deem that harsh, I thank my parents for putting these activities off until high school. (Trust me, your daughter will have plenty of extracurricular opportunities in high school. I did! Use elementary and middle school to fortify her math and science skills beyond the classroom.)
I specifically remember requesting to join the school choir and being told a firm “no” by my parents. Did that have a negative impact on me? No. I can’t sing anyway. I also remember wanting to run track in elementary school. Did I? No. But I ran in high school and college and did really well.
4. Programming courses are imperative.
My Dad made sure I was enrolled in an introductory programming class my sophomore year of high school. (I wanted to take a second term of drafting instead but he was wise and knew what he was doing in turning down my choice.) That programming course set the trajectory of the rest of my career path. When I got to college, I was prepared for more advanced programming classes. This then set me up for certain engineering internships that required a bit of coding and helped me fine-tune my skill further. By the time I entered industry, I was ready to take on the coding world. (Software engineers are not the only coders; being any other engineer with a coding background is a plus and takes you a long way.)
5. And choosing a good high school.
I should also mention that my parents made sure we got into good high schools, too. (Again, neighborhood public schools were not an option.) I ultimately tested into a magnet school, a top boarding school, and a few fancy private schools — a couple of which offered scholarships. I chose the magnet school, which prepped me really well for a path in STEM. Actually, my sisters and I all went to magnet schools (three different ones) for that phase.
6. STEM-related internships or programs during the summer.
Summer was not a time to do nothing at our home. My parents encouraged us to apply for jobs/programs starting freshman year of high school. I remember applying to a NASA summer space program and getting rejected. But a couple years later, I was accepted into a different NASA program. (If at first you don’t succeed, try again.) This paved the way for me to get college summer internships at other aerospace and engineering programs. Everybody loves seeing NASA on a resume!
7. Give your girls role models to follow.
I remember reading Mae Jemison’s autobiography (which my Mom bought for me in high school) and being so inspired. I saw so much of me in her as a little black city girl and envisioned what could be if I stayed on the right path. Some of her experiences were ones I could relate to and others became a “heads up” for challenges I would one day face.
NOTE: The seed for wanting a career in STEM has to be in your child. You can’t force it, but you can discover it and help it germinate.