Mentor Monday - December 8, 2014

Dec 08, 2014 Written by FIRST Staff

Today’s Mentor Monday blog post comes to us from Elizabeth Davis, an alumnus of FIRST Lego League Team "Central Spacelab One" and FRC Team 45, the TechnoKats.

We’d like you to write a blog post about your journey to the current point in your career. What were the most important steps that you took? Were there influential people or events along the way?

My experiences with FIRST started when I was in 6th grade, on the FLL team at my middle school, Central SpaceLab One. I found that the research project was the aspect of the program that interested me the most. With the guidance of our coach, Mr. McCarter, I learned the process of asking meaningful questions, searching for relevant information, and finally drawing conclusions to answer those questions. This was the first real basis that I remember developing for scientific problem solving.

When I was in 8th grade, everything fell into place. The FLL game theme was “Ocean Odyssey.” I was fully steeped in the research project effort, and our team explored the problem of cruise ship pollution, developing an idea to enforce sewage dumping laws by satellite monitoring. This was the first major project I participated in where I felt a great deal of intellectual ownership, understood and actively helped with all areas of its development, and felt satisfied and very proud of its completion. The project helped us to win the Director’s Award (the predecessor of the Champion’s Award) at the World Festival when it was still held in Atlanta, Georgia. Having won gives me bragging rights, but the more important lessons from my FLL projects were irrelevant of the competition. The FLL research projects teach basic skills for scientific research, which I am acutely aware of having developed today.

Having also participated in the FRC team (TechnoKats, team 45) at my high school, I’ve just graduated from college, Indiana University, with degrees in Environmental Science and Mathematics. Environmental Science is popularly seen as a “softer” science than other STEM fields like Biology and Physics, but that is not the case (just look at Earth Science fields called things like “geophysics,” and “biogeochemistry”). Additionally, it lends itself to adventure. My Earth Science education has taken me all over the world: on a research cruise in Oregon, inside the calderas of active volcanoes in Russia, and scuba diving in the Caribbean, all using not only the skills but also some of the specific knowledge that I gained directly as a result of my involvement with FIRST.

Last summer I had a job working as a student in a seismology (earthquake science) lab at Oregon State University. This was funded by the National Science Foundation, through a student research program called “Research Experiences for Undergraduates,” or “REU.” As a part of my work, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks on a research vessel off the coast of Oregon, serving as a member of the science party. The scientific objective of the cruise was to pull up seismometers from the bottom of the ocean where they had been collecting data for a year. Some of the seismometers were collected using a robot named Jason, a remotely operated vehicle designed “to allow scientists to have access to the seafloor without leaving the deck of a ship.”

The team that works on Jason is a real-world equivalent of the FRC team’s pit crew and drive team. Jason becomes their baby. They know all of its systems by heart, they prep it before each launch, and during its deployment, they drive it from an awesome control room onboard the ship, located inside a shipping container and called the control “van.” Their jobs are dedicated to this vehicle, and they make deep ocean science possible. Several of them have also worked with the more-famous Alvin, the manned submersible that carried scientists to explore the wreck of the Titanic in 1986.

As a member of the expedition’s science party, one of my responsibilities on the ship was to operate one of Jason’s cameras during some of its dives. Jason has cameras dedicated to maneuvering the vehicle, and also those dedicated to observing whatever the scientists want to see. We were very interested in observing the performance of the mechanisms on the equipment we were recovering, as well as observing the local marine life. One of the two lead scientists on the cruise was my primary research mentor, Dr. Anne Trehu, who has served as an important teacher and role model for me. We’ve just submitted a scientific paper to a journal for publication that includes data from that cruise, which will be my first authorship in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal.

More recently, I’ve traveled to Hawai’i and Russia to study active volcanoes, learning in an outdoor classroom. Volcanologists, or volcano scientists, climb (and often camp around) active volcanoes in order to install seismometers and other sensors that help them monitor the volcano’s behavior. This allows them to alert the local government in the case of changes in activity, which can indicate an impending eruption.

In all fields of the Earth Sciences there is a need for more STEM students.

Scientists are needed to ask questions about the Earth and design experiments to answer them. Engineers are needed to develop better sensors, seismometers, and satellites to collect data about our changing planet. Mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists are needed to manage and analyze vast digital datasets.

The questions they answer will be intimately relevant to all of us:

Will we be able to predict deadly earthquakes? Where should we plant crops in a changing climate? Where will our future energy come from?

This need is relevant regardless of the scientists’ gender. Though I have had some incredibly intelligent and successful woman science mentors in recent years, there is still noticeable gender inequality in the field as a whole. This inequality is also visible in FIRST. While I was participating in FLL and FRC in Indiana, there were no female engineering mentors on my teams. Female team members were usually more densely concentrated in the organizational side of my FRC team than on the technical side of it.

We’d also be interested in your thoughts on how teams can engage the female students on their teams. How can teams better reach out to female students who aren’t on their team? How can teams attract more female engineering mentors? Are there successes from your team(s) that you can share?

Combating the observed inequality on a large scale is tricky. How can we encourage girls to participate in STEM activities? I do not subscribe to techniques of “feminizing” technical fields in order to attract women (e.g. pink tools). The women who are interested in STEM will be interested in it because they like thinking critically and technically to solve problems, regardless of the color, femininity, or masculinity of those problems.

Instead, we should be reaching out to girls and boys who like problem solving, and we should be careful not to scare them away by telling them subtly that math, tech, engineering is “not for them.”

From my experience, it seems like there are two main factors relevant to including women on FIRST teams.

    1. Recruitment: Engaging and enthusiastic mentors and student leaders help recruitment.
    2. Maintaining a welcoming environment: If students don't feel like they are valued or contributing to the team, they're less likely to stay involved.

I think there are a couple key steps that mentors and students can take to create and maintain a welcoming environment for all students. Many students, whether in high school, college, or graduate school, experience anxiety about math, science, and technology subjects. Sometimes students tend to think that everyone else around them already knows a lot about the subject at hand, and that they are the only ones who will get left behind. This can lead to students feeling like frauds, or like they’re “faking it.” This phenomenon has been observed and described by psychologists, is especially common among high-achieving women, and has been dubbed the “Imposter Syndrome.”

It’s important for FIRST teams to recognize this discomfort, and make STEM nonthreatening to beginners without dumbing anything down. When including new students, it’s important not only to start teaching concepts from the bottom up, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, communicating that this is what is going to happen—that it is okay to have no experience, and that no one will be left behind. There were several mentors on my FRC team, the TechnoKats, who recognized this and created a welcoming environment by actively encouraging new students to participate, ask questions, and share ideas.

It’s also important for students and mentors to keep in mind that girls may be more likely to be subject to some subtle sexism, usually on the part of other students--being passively or actively excluded by boys, or being seen socially as "less mechanically-minded" or "less technical" than boys. This can lead to girls migrating toward the nontechnical aspects of the team in order to find something they excel at--organization, logistics, team spirit, etc.

This is so difficult to combat because usually it's not the case that someone says, "you can't do this because you're a girl." There’s more subtlety. For example, students might take a boy's idea more seriously than a girl's. Trying to accurately identify such subtle sexism as it happens, let alone take actions against it, is a daunting task. In response, it's important that mentors are mindful of discouraging language or behaviors that subtly say, "you can't" to any student, regardless of gender. Again, both FLL and FRC mentors served this role for my teams.

Lastly, I fully think that students—girls and other minority groups, will be more interested in joining FIRST teams when they see others like them in leadership roles. One of the most valuable aspects of FIRST is that it places students in closer contact with successful scientists and engineers. Students use this contact and mentorship to inform their own futures, even when they don’t realize it at the time. When I was in middle school and high school, I felt so far away from the scientists and engineers who did things like climbing volcanoes and studying the ocean floor using submersibles.

The steps that brought me to these adventures, however, were very simple:

    1. Keep taking math and science classes in high school
    2. Keep taking math and science classes in college
    3. Spend your time in school (and out) learning-- which is not always the same thing as getting good grades.
    4. Keep an eye out for cool opportunities, and take advantage of them.

What is “cool” should be subjective, and will be naturally defined by your interests.

Even now, I’m still just taking steps toward those things that interest me. After graduating from college, I’m currently travelling and working on organic farms to learn more about practicing sustainable food and agriculture. In the future I’m looking forward to graduate school, going inside a deep water submersible, seeing flowing lava, designing a self-sufficient life, and whatever else I’ll find fascinating in the future.

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