A young, brilliant Rocket Scientist tells us why she thinks STEM Education is so important

10:24 PM

Stephanie Evans
By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

People who read this blog long enough know I am a big proponent of getting more females into flying. But that advocacy also includes getting more women into the aerospace industry, and that begins with STEM education.

If that acronym is foreign to you, STEM stands for "science, technology, engineering and math." That is the core curriculum if you want to end up as a "Certified Rocket Scientist" like Stephanie Evans (@StephEvz43).

I recently "met" Stephanie through Twitter, and she was cordial enough to take time off of building something for someone (sorry, it is classified and I do not know myself) to answer some interview questions. I wanted to find out what path she took to get out of the pink aisle and into a seriously cool job in the aerospace industry. Her answers are presented below verbatim:

AIRPLANISTA: Your Twitter profile says you are a "Certified Rocket Scientist"...what exactly is that, and how do you get certified?

STEPHANIE EVANS (SE): My "certification" is more based around my degree, which is in aerospace engineering. I like to joke that I paid a lot of money and didn't sleep for four years so that I could say "it's not rocket science" ironically. My focus in college was on microsatellite design and development. I went to school at Missouri S&T and participated on the Satellite Design Team (M-SAT) and also did research for the Missouri Space Grant Consortium. Those experiences are what I count towards my "certification."

AIRPLANISTA: Walk my readers through your childhood and 'tween years and describe the path you took to end up with a BS in Aerospace Engineering. Was there any one event that sent you on this trajectory, or any one person who mentored you?

SE: I grew up in a small town in the middle of a corn field in southern Illinois, so there wasn't a lot of scientific clubs or organizations to get involved with up until I was in high school. In fact, it wasn't until I was a sophomore in high school that our science club was organized. I was very lucky to have two science teachers that really nurtured my love for science and set me on the path I'm on today.

While the town is set in pretty old-fashioned ways, my parents both did a wonderful job encouraging me to find an interest. My father has always loved aircraft. He's always wanted to get his pilot's license. Growing up next to an Air Force Base also helped. I think the defining moment for me was when I was pretty young, around 7 or 8. I was playing in the backyard and looked up and saw what looked like a flying saucer to me; a very thin wing shape flying completely level with only the cockpit sticking up. As I watched, the aircraft banked out, and I was looking at a B-2 gracefully banking out over the cornfields. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen, and I knew I wanted to somehow be involved with stuff like that. As I got older, that passion branched out to spacecraft. I would stay up late for night launches and read about anything I could get my hands on about space exploration and the history of NASA. I was definitely a geek, but all the experiences I had during that time were incredibly influential in setting me on my career path.

AIRPLANISTA: I have heard that "engineering" is primarily made up of male students. Is that true, and did being female in that world have an positive or negative effects on your education and career advancement?

SE: It is absolutely true. Missouri S&T is primarily an engineering college, and its student population dynamic is very reflective of how the actual engineering industry is. When I enrolled at the college, I believe that the ratio was roughly nine boys for every one girl. However, the university has really made strides to encourage female interest. There are many outreach programs that target young women, and by the time I'd graduated, the female population had increased to nearly 25%, the highest it had ever been. It is still very much a boy's club though; out of 50 aerospace students in my graduating class, I was one of two women.

Having such a low female percentage definitely has effects, both positive and negative. Many employers are eager to diversify, so being female can help when looking for work (although it never felt like it when I was looking for work). There are even scholarships that specifically target female engineering students and organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers.

However, there are downfalls to it as well. As a female, I constantly feel that I need to prove myself. Sexism is still a thing, and it's pretty hard to prove in the workplace when you may be the only female report. Many women don't come forward due to fear of retribution or being branded a "FemiNazi". In my college years, I regularly heard jokes about women getting back to the kitchen, and they were just jokes, but after hearing them all of your life, they can be exhausting. I'm not saying that it's like this everywhere. In the two years I've been in industry, I've reported to outstanding people, but I've also had my uphill battles with male individuals. I don't condone it at all, but it is something young women need to be prepared to deal with, because it doesn't always go away.

My approach has always been simple: Work as hard as you can, outwork everyone around you, and if that perception still exists, then it's their problem, not yours.

AIRPLANISTA: I recently bought my granddaughter a GoldieBlox kit because their website says, "In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math, girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they've been considered boys' toys. GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. We aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers." So, what do you think "disrupt the pink aisle" means?

SE: Ah, the wonderful pink aisle. Growing up, I have so many memories of walking through toy stores and seeing the "pink aisle" where the toys for girls resided. Hot pink Barbie boxes and doll boxes stretched out for what seemed like miles. While I did own Barbies (Princess Jasmine had color changing hair and jewelry. How awesome was that?), there were times that I'd skip the pink aisle and head for the Legos in the "boys section". Toys like this really give me hope for the next generation because the break the mold for what is expected of young girls. At the end of the day, I don't think there should be toys for girls and toys for boys, just toys that foster whatever interest each child has. I just wish stuff like this had been around when I was growing up so that I wouldn't have to blow breakers in the house (lesson: never touch white and green wires together in the light socket box) just to satisfy my constant curiosity. I think my parents would also have been appreciative.

AIRPLANISTA: What can the average general aviation pilot do to help encourage girls and women to think about STEM studies?

SE: I would say a large part of this is Outreach activities. Giving talks, holding seminars, or just taking your daughter up in your aircraft are great ways to foster interests. These kinds of things weren't available to me when I was growing up and frankly, the fact that I ended up in the field I did surprises me some days. Pure tenacity and curiosity got me to where I am, but not all girls are lucky enough to have parents that have time to take you to the airshow or do science experiments with you. I had two teachers for parents that constantly encouraged me to pursue any interest I had. Making these kinds of things available to young women is a huge step in the right direction, and it's also so good for the industry.

In college, part of our M-SAT program was to do Outreach with the local communities. I know for a fact that walking the kids through our observatory on campus or teaching them about basic rocket design changed some of their lives. At the end of the day, just allow young women to explore any and all interests they have, and if it just wasn't their cup of tea, then that's absolutely fine. The opportunity to explore the different opportunities in the STEM fields just needs to be more available.

AIRPLANISTA: Now that you are in a critical engineering position with a major company, do you see any significant differences between the male and female engineers?

SE: Overall, I'm very fortunate to work with a group of engineers that are incredibly dedicated to designing and developing the best products and projects that we can in a timely fashion. However, there are a few differences. I think the most notable difference is the personality types. Many of the men that I work with are laid back and go about their jobs quietly. I work closely with another female engineer, and she is an incredibly strong woman that doesn't take anything lying down. She is incredibly meticulous in ensuring that she understands everything going on in her projects and that everything is being designed and tested to the quality that she expects. The attention to detail that she regularly displays is something to aspire to. We work as Systems Engineers, so we are responsible for requirement development and tracking, and projects are built on these requirements, so her tenacity serves her well. One of the biggest things she's taught me in the two years I've worked with her is to not accept anything less than exactly what you want and don't take crap from anyone. It may not always make friends, but it gets the job done, and I think that kind of personality is definitely beneficial for young women in fields dominated by men. In my limited experience, it would seem that women like this are usually the success stories. 

AIRPLANISTA: Do you think females would become more interested in STEM education and a career in aerospace industry by joining EAA and learning about building experimental aircraft?

SE: Absolutely. I can tell you that, as a child, if this kind of opportunity had been available to me, I would have jumped all over it. As I said earlier, Outreach like this is key in fostering a love for STEM in not only young women, but the general public. I didn't even hear the words "aerospace engineering" until my freshman year in high school, and I know that there are many young women just like me. An EAA membership would go a long way in education and encouragement for the aerospace industry.

AIRPLANISTA: What are some of the main reasons that girls and women do not actively pursue STEM education and careers in the aerospace industry in numbers equal to males?

SE: In my opinion, it's a lack of encouragement from society and a lack of available activities. In general, I would say things are improving. There are so many activities that I hear about nowadays that make me go "Dang, I wish they had that when I was a kid!" For example, Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri has the Columbia Aeronautics and Space Association or CASA, a curriculum that focuses on aerospace technology and the curriculum applications. The coolest part of this program is the week-long International Space Station simulation, complete with mission control, "ninjas" to cause problems for the astronauts to deal with, and a replica of the station that the students work in. Hands down, one of the coolest things I've ever seen, and an incredibly significant outreach project due to the interest it generates not only with the students, but with the community. Projects like these are the necessary steps forward in increasing these numbers, but finding them is a rare. I acknowledge that this is a large-scale example, but there are multitudes of activities that educators and parents can do with young people to spark an interest in STEM education. The first steps just need to be taken.

AIRPLANISTA: Your specialty is satellites. We currently have a fantastic GPS system that allows my phone to find a Starbucks in the next block, and track my movements in real-time. But this planet lacks any sort of worldwide Internet connectivity, and many places still suffer with slow dial-up speeds. What are the technical reasons that we cannot someday see a satellite-based Internet connectivity system with the coverage of the GPS system, delivering fast Internet speeds anywhere a device can send signals to and receive signals from satellites?

SE: Believe it or not, a project like this is already in the works! Google's Project Loon is working to spread Internet connectivity to rural or remote areas using high-altitude balloons (not quite satellites, but on the edge of space). The reasoning behind using the weather balloons is likely the fact that it's a cheaper solution (launching a bunch of satellites into space is incredibly expensive).

AIRPLANISTA: Describe what a girl age 10-13 should be doing right now to set out on an education path that includes STEM studies in order to end up in a position such as yours.

SE: Working hard in school and reading everything they can get their hands on about their interests. Don't be easily discouraged if this is something that they are truly passionate about, because passionate people are the ones that need to be working in these fields. Those are the people that are going to drive the major successes and discoveries of the future.

AIRPLANISTA: How important is it that we send humans to Mars? Is that in our future, and if yes, do you see that potentially as part of the commercial space travel industry someday?

SE: I think sending humans to Mars will be the first baby steps required for the human race to branch out to other planets. It will be our first real test-run for long term missions and independent survival. Going to Mars will play a significant step in the advance of human space exploration. In regards to the commercial industry, I believe that if we can successfully set up a colony on Mars, that yes, commercial space flight to Mars would be the next logical step, although I don't believe it will be in my lifetime.

AIRPLANISTA: Add anything here that you think my general aviation readers need to see to help them understand about girls, women and STEM education.

SE: Just in general, the world is becoming a more encouraging place for young women everywhere to take up a career in STEM, but there is still much room for improvement. The most difficult part about pursuing a career in STEM is the fact that everything is changing so quickly: new scientific discoveries every day, new technology rolling off the line before anyone can get used to the previous model. It's a world constantly in flux, but to me, that is what makes it so exciting. There are many careers where you may do the same thing every day for 50 years, but STEM fields are constantly changing and growing.In my mind, that is what makes it such a wonderful thing to be a part of, and I can't wait to see how the STEM world will change throughout my career, both in terms of the exciting research that will be generated and the people that will be doing it.

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