Professor Offers Four Simple Tips to Encourage Your Daughter to Become an Engineer

Monday, February 18, 2019
Kay C Dee talking with prospective student during a campus visit

Kay C Dee has been an advocate for encouraging more girls into science, technology, engineering and mathematics throughout her career as a biomedical engineering professor and higher education academic leader.

This Thursday, Feb. 21, is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. Kay C Dee, a professor of biology and biomedical engineering and a first-generation female engineer, suggests the following simple tips for parents to help their daughters (her own included) prepare for a possible career in engineering.

  1. Praise resilience and persistence instead of intelligence—and praise specifically and genuinely.
  2. When you hear negative self-talk, don’t negate it or ignore it. 
  3. Let your daughter know that it’s OK if she doesn’t love math, and let her know that science classes (like any classes, in any subject) can be boring sometimes.
  4. Don’t propagate gender assumptions.  

While women have taken major strides forward in many areas of America’s workforce, they still make up only 13 percent of today’s engineers, according to the Society of Women Engineers.
 
That’s why women engineers have banded together to encourage young girls to overcome peer pressure, societal biases and gender assumptions to become tomorrow’s engineers that could build rockets propelling future missions to Mars, design lifesaving medical devices or bring fresh water to people living in underdeveloped countries – to name just a few of the possibilities.
 
Dee offers further details about each of her four tips:
 
Praise resilience and persistence instead of intelligence – and praise specifically and genuinely.
There’s a large amount of educational psychology research and popular writing on fixed mindsets (the belief that talents are hard-wired and unchanging: someone either has a natural talent for music, or they don’t) and growth mindsets (the belief that we can learn and expand our skills: someone may be a novice musician now, but if they keep practicing, they will be much better). When young people are told by their peers and adults that they are “smart,” they can view intelligence as a fixed trait that’s part of their core identity. Situations that are intellectually challenging become extra scary when failing at a task is internalized as being a failure as a person. And, I guarantee that engineering school will be intellectually challenging! Help your daughter practice persistence (setting long-term goals, and achieving them step by step) and resilience (re-engaging with a goal after a setback), and praise these qualities when you see them. Instead of general praise, like “Good job on that test,” tell your daughter exactly what behavior you’d like to continue to see: “I’m impressed with how you scheduled study time every day this week to prepare for that test, instead of binge-studying the night before.  Looks like that worked out really well!” Fake or half-hearted praise will be detected and rejected by your daughter, so look for opportunities to delightedly and truthfully affirm her actions.
 
If your daughter is handling her schoolwork relatively easily, she might need to look elsewhere for opportunities to practice resilience and persistence. Consider music lessons, athletics or learning a new craft/skill (woodworking, fiber arts, skateboarding). For my daughter, taekwondo turned out to be an excellent arena for determined, hard work toward long-term goals.
 
When you hear negative self-talk, don’t negate it or ignore it.
If your daughter said, “I’m terrible at this!” would you instinctively respond with something like “Oh, no you’re not?” If she said, “I feel so stupid,” would you say, “Don’t feel that way?” You may be using a caring tone of voice, but actually, what you’re saying is fruitless (starting an argument about her skill?) and unhelpful (don’t have the feelings that you are having?). Instead, see if you can help her explore and self-regulate her feelings. For example, “I’m terrible at this” sounds like a permanent condition. Is it really permanent? Is there a way to get better at (whatever it is)? If not, why not? What are the realistic consequences of being terrible at this? The idea is to gently work toward the idea that most setbacks are temporary, rather than permanent. Events that initially seem like a catastrophe usually aren’t, in the long term, or from a different point of view. You might also listen for and gently point out a tendency to place heavy emphasis on negative events while discounting positive events. 
 
Finally, keep an ear perked for comments aligned with the “imposter syndrome,” in which a person believes that they are basically an imposter in a group with less skills/qualifications than everyone else, fearing exposure as a fraud. You might hear your daughter saying “Nobody else in that class has to work hard like I do to keep up” or “I’m not going to ask the teacher questions! If I did that, everyone would know how stupid I am.”  I’ve talked with many classes of first-year engineering students about the imposter syndrome. Every single time, it turned out that the room was full of people who felt like imposters, having assumed that everyone else in the room had their act together and that everyone else’s lives were factually reflected in their Instagram posts. It’s important to help your daughter understand that no one’s life is factually reflected in their Instagram posts, and to recognize when she’s making comparisons between herself and others that are based on assumptions. Simply learning that imposter syndrome is a real thing that people can easily learn about online is a good step toward putting those fears of exposure in a more appropriate context.
 
The internal commentary that runs in our heads can be a source of strength, or a saboteur. Help your daughter tune the commentary in her head away from catastrophizing, and toward a wiser mind.
 
Let your daughter know that it’s OK if she doesn’t love math, and let her know that science classes (like any classes, in any subject) can be boring sometimes.
The conventional wisdom that “if you love math and science, you should consider engineering” is true, but I’m afraid this also sends the message that someone who doesn’t love math, and who finds their chemistry class boring sometimes, should not consider engineering–and I don’t agree with that. One can be good at something but not “love” it. This doesn’t discuss capability or skills. Rather, it counters a potentially unrealistic idea of young people that “loving” an academic subject means that is it always a joyous treat. Engineers have to be able to use math and they have to be able to evaluate when math is being used appropriately, but they don’t have to leap for joy at the thought of working on their math homework. (If your daughter does love math, she might consider majoring in it!). And, there is no engineering without science–without an understanding of how the world works, we can’t create things to make the world work more conveniently for us. Still, not every moment of every science class will be enthralling, no matter how enthusiastic and skilled the teacher is. 
 
It’s more complex but, I think, more accurate to say that someone should consider engineering if they appreciate how useful math can be to predict whether something will work; are willing and able to use math to help figure out the best solutions to problems; and can think critically about collecting data and drawing conclusions from evidence. 

Don’t propagate gender assumptions.
Let’s say that your daughter is going to see a new orthodontist, ear/nose/throat doctor or strength coach that you’ve never met. When you talk with her about what will likely happen during the upcoming visit, what pronoun would you use for these folks? Make a habit of using “he or she” whenever possible, to allow your daughter to imagine anyone filling those professional roles. As a female professor of engineering, I’ve had many people assume that I was “Dr. Dee’s secretary,” and try to leave messages for me, with me. I think fondly of the first-year students who have been brave enough to whisper/ask me if they should call “a lady professor” Mrs. or Ms. (For the record, I cheerfully suggest Professor or Dr. and thank them for asking.) 
 
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More About Kay C Dee
 
Kay C Dee was a first-generation college student who managed to scrape together enough scholarships and loans to pay tuition bills each year that were always higher than her single mother’s annual salary. Remembering those hardships, Dee has reached out to assist students from similar economic backgrounds to realize their career goals.
 
Women in engineering were a rarity when Dee was an undergraduate student and her first class taught by a female engineering professor came during Dee’s senior year of college. Now, she is among several female professors in Rose-Hulman’s Department of Biology and Biomedical Engineering, along with female colleagues in every academic department on campus. She joined the college’s faculty in 2004.
 
Dee has long been active with the EngineerGirl website, regularly answering questions posed by young women around the country who are interested in learning more about biomedical engineering.  
 
Professionally, Dee has been named a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, based on her specialization in tissue-biomaterial interactions. She also was among the 2017 Inspiring Leaders of STEM by INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine. The honor recognizes education professionals from underrepresented groups for making a difference in STEM fields through mentorship, teaching, research, and organizing successful programs and initiatives.