I was privileged to hear Dr. Bonnie Dunbar speak recently. Dr. Dunbar is a retired astronaut, having flown five missions from 1985-1998 on Challenger, Columbia (twice), Atlantis, and Endeavor. She’s logged more than 50 days in space. She trained in Star City Russia for 13 months and flew the first docking flight between the Russian Space Station MIR and the Space Shuttle in 1995. Dunbar served as payload commander on two flights, participated in a 13-day Spacelab flight as well as the eighth docking mission to MIR. She’s an Engineer by training and has more awards and honors than I can type. She holds seven honorary university doctoral degrees. And, before she even became an official astronaut, she worked for Rockwell International where she helped develop equipment and processes for manufacturing the thermal protection system for the Space Shuttle. Then, she later flew on it!
She grew up in a rural area in Washington State, always being encouraged by her parents and K-8th grade school principal to follow her heart into science and space. She said she was never told she couldn’t do it, even as a little girl in the 1950s. She was always encouraged and given the direction and guidance to accomplish her dreams.
Her presentation was nothing short of awe inspiring. A clearly brilliant woman, she spoke to the group in such an easy to understand, conversational way. Her demeanor and personality were lovely and contagious. She’s the kind of person that I’d love to call on up and ask her to grab a glass of wine with me.
Dr. Dunbar is currently a Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Houston and is also leading the UH STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program. STEM was the topic of her speech. She and I both agree that we need to encourage our younger generation to pursue STEM careers. I have four children and hope that at least one will be interested in a career in science, technology, engineering, or math. I can’t force their brains to learn and digest information in a certain way, but I can introduce them to opportunities to explore those subjects.
We hear a great deal about girls not following STEM careers as much as boys do. This accounts for a chunk of the wage gap data. “Research has shown that women tend to gravitate towards fields of studies and career paths where they can have a positive social impact and work with others, often collaboratively,” Linda Basch, President of the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW). A report by The American Association of Colleges and Universities says that “many of the most popular fields are heavily segregated by gender; 81 percent of engineering degrees were earned by men, while almost 80 percent education degrees (which account for 6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees) were earned by women.”
I wholeheartedly believe girls and women can and do succeed in STEM careers. However, I also believe female brains are wired differently from male brains. But that only means that we should encourage both girls and boys to investigate careers in STEM. And hold schools accountable for strong STEM curriculums.
The facts are clear. “60% of U.S. employers are having difficulties finding qualified workers,” Council of Foreign Relations. “STEM occupations will grow 1.7 times faster than that of Non-STEM occupations over the period from 2008-2018,” Office of Science and Technology and Policy. “In almost every state, children will get less time for science in elementary school than they did 15-20 years ago,” Change the Equation. “39% of 8th graders report that they ‘never or hardly ever’ design a science experiment,” National Science Foundations’ 2012 Science and Engineering Indicators.
And, most importantly for our economy, “the top 10 bachelor-degree majors with the highest median earnings are all in the STEM fields,” National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. The future is now, as they say, and it’s an exciting time for these fields. So, buy those Legos, encourage that robotics or web mastering class, and have your children follow NASA on Twitter (which provides some pretty cool images and information, by the way). As a political science major myself, I am in awe of the technology and engineering fields, but in my awe, I am inspired and excited about how we can shape the future.