As the old guard of engineering professionals approaches retirement, people everywhere are starting to ask, “Who’s going to take over these jobs once they’re gone?” At the same time, engineering and technology professions are starting to take a critical look at the need for increased diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) jobs.
In the age of DIY apps, software development, and big data, the term “engineering” has started to take on new meaning. Anyone with a computer and the desire to learn can contribute to engineering the technology and information systems that make a difference in our world. However, gaps still exist in terms of getting young women and underrepresented minorities to engage with computer science or engineering education and careers.
Recently the Intel Foundation teamed up with the nonprofit Girls Who Code to teach young female students the essentials of software development. Lessons in the classroom translated into students designing apps with real-life utility (such as an app designed to help smartphone owners assist the homeless in finding soup kitchens and shelters). Intel has tapped into the “maker” movement as one channel to get girls more interested in computer science and engineering activities, based on research that suggests “girls involved with making, designing, and creating things with electronic tools may build a stronger interest — and greater skills — in computer science and engineering.”
The Harlem Times interviewed Barbara McAllister, Director of Global Strategic Initiatives at the Intel Foundation. She has an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering along with an MBA. Barbara works with girls and women portfolios that advance innovation, math, and science education, and is responsible for driving grant initiatives that align with the Intel Foundation’s mission.
Tell us about your background in electrical engineering. Who were some mentors that got you started on that path? How did you come to the Intel Foundation?
My choice to study electrical engineering was actually rooted in my family. I’m eight of eight kids, and many in my family actually chose STEM careers. In terms of my brothers, two of them majored in chemistry. They thought I should major in engineering, and at the time I didn’t have a better plan. I was strong in math and science, and I chose engineering based on their guidance. I think that speaks to having positive role models in your life (because I don’t know that if I didn’t have my brothers in front of me that knew about a career in engineering if it would have even registered on my radar).
I graduated from the University of South Carolina in electrical engineering, and then went on to complete my MBA. I came to Intel really working largely in engineering roles — program management roles in our Technology and Manufacturing group. I also worked for Intel on our construction team, where I was responsible for where the next Intel facility would be located. I was working as a part of a due diligence team that would look at the critical factors for why Intel should be located into a new country or not (and flag any issues that should be brought to bear relative to Intel locating in that country or state or not). It was fascinating work and cut across multiple countries.
Throughout my journey, because we have this challenge of not having females or underrepresented minorities in engineering, it has always been a passion of mine — and so even throughout my time at the different jobs at Intel I found myself acting as an ambassador to get more females and underrepresented minorities in engineering. Over time that actually led to me finding out that the Intel Foundation was in existence. So I started to navigate my way to this particular role and it provides a great opportunity to use my engineering experiences and training to tackle the STEM shortage challenges.
Why are you so passionate about increasing opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM? Why does this matter to you?
I think I’m very passionate about it because I see just the huge value, opportunity, and potential of these roles. Some of that is rooted in my personal story. So think about what we know now about STEM jobs. STEM jobs are growing two times the rate of non-STEM jobs. We also know that if I look at the pay of STEM jobs and how people in STEM jobs are compensated, these occupations have the smallest gap between men, women, and underrepresented minorities. So frankly I see these occupations as a way to help underserved populations get out of poverty. I see that because that was true for my own story. So I would say what motivates me most is I know the power of these roles; I know just how important they are for our society. These roles have the potential actually to lift students, and in my case an entire generation, out of poverty.
Can you tell us about some of the current projects that you’re involved with at the Intel Foundation in terms of grant-making and outreach?
We know…that we’re seeing more girls, women, and the underserved using this technology than ever before. Technology is everywhere. As we study the data (and Intel is a very data-driven company) we see that we have relatively few girls and women that are playing roles in creating these technologies, or are even choosing to pursue the careers that would be responsible for creating these technologies.
Inside Intel what we’re trying to do is work to close some of these gaps. We’re doing that through a collection of programs as well as partnerships. We think that if you inspire students about these careers and give them exposure to what it means to become an innovator, and demystify what software developers do, that we will have a better shot at bringing more women and underserved to the table as creators of this technology.
So we partner with organizations like Girls Who Code and the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and several other organizations. These organizations are trying to give exposure to these students, unpack what it means to be an engineer and why it matters to their lives and the lives of others, as well as giving them exposure to people who are actually doing these professions. So that’s kind of the heart of the strategic programs that we’re leading. The proven recipe for us is that it needs to have some level of exposure, so that kids can actually see (because we believe if you don’t see it, it’s hard to want to be it or achieve it), so we try and provide visibility. We also try to do it in a very fun and meaningful way because we know that even if there is proficiency, if the students do not have interests in these careers, they’re not going to choose to stay with them.
I’ve read you write that STEM is about making a difference. In the Intel Foundation’s work with its program partners, how important is it to establish an emotional connection in young people to the field? And what ways does this come into play?
Yeah I think it’s super important, and we hear this from our students. The piece that you’re hitting on is even though we know that girls are graduating at higher rates, so the proficiency is there, but we also have to connect with the interest point. So what the research is showing is that even when students are able to complete these engineering careers, if you don’t tap into the heart of the matter, which I’m calling the “interest” of it, and make that connection between how will these jobs make a difference in the lives of people? How will these jobs make a technological advancement that will also advance people? If we don’t make that connection for young people, they are not going to choose to stay with these careers. If fact, the students that are surveyed in middle schools, girls in particular, about 74% of them express some level of interest in these computer science careers, but by the time they get to high school less than 1% of them actually choose computer science when they enter into college. Much of that I think is that we haven’t done a good job in the industry of really unpacking what these jobs do.
So when we ask students, the young people tell us they’re very clear about what doctors do, they’re very clear about what lawyers do and how they make a difference in the world. Now the same level of clarity is needed for engineering. And that’s what the Intel Foundation is doing with our programs, such as Girls Who Code, and the Intel Computer Clubhouse Networks, really trying to get students access to what these jobs really mean and how they matter to the world, and how they can make a difference in the world.
How does it work, do you have someone come into the classroom to give an actual tutorial on how to code?
So with Girls Who Code (it’s a full immersion program, it’s about eight weeks and 320 hours of intensive classroom instruction where the young students are exposed to topics such as robotics, web design, and how to develop mobile apps.
app development,). They’re given the opportunity to think about those apps through the lens of how they can actually make a difference in the world. So in some of the Girls Who Code activities there’s an example of a student creating a medical app that used visual cues to remind its user to take their pills . The students are given the opportunity to choose the projects that they work on, but more often than not young people are actually choosing to work on projects that are making a difference.
They’re given about eight weeks of hands-on project-based learning, which is really critical because we’ve also found in the research that just the mere essence of me going in to talk to students saying, ‘Hi. You should consider engineering; it worked extremely well in my career.’ You need more intensity and duration of programs to the tune that Girls Who Code is administering, which is hands-on for a longer duration of time (and on a certain level an intensity) so that they can really un-crack and demystify what coding is all about.
What is the role of parents?
We see parents as being a critical ally in tackling this challenge, and we know that obviously parents are key influencers in what their young people study and even the majors that they choose. Being a parent myself, I know with my son I’ve done a good of exposing him to the sports, and the different sports…running him through seasons of soccer and baseball, and each year we would do a different sport. But I think as parents we aren’t necessarily doing that same model with trying to understand the differences in the engineering careers and what’s possible for children to explore in careers.
Last year around the National Engineering Week at Intel, the Network of Intel African Americans employee group sat down to try and think about what we could do to get more underrepresented minority students in STEM. And what were some of the barriers, and what were some of the critical strategies that we could employ. And in that room, there was about 25 of us, almost every single person in that room had come to engineering because of a parent or because of a teacher that had been in their lives. And in many cases the parent was actually the father playing that specific role.
So then we went out to start this organization, which we eventually called STEMpact, which ultimately became Start With STEM — basically going into our communities working specifically with parents on just telling them about the value of these careers, the dollars people can make in these careers, and the curricula that young people should be thinking about. Because we found that parents just did not have exposure, access, or knowledge about these careers, demystifying the differences say electrical and mechanical or software development. We also brought visibility to the salaries of these careers. We have a group of us, Intel volunteers and to date, we’ve reached out to over 5,000 parents now.
Do you think that there’s a change in the culture, in terms of how we teach STEM in K-12, in public schools, that needs to happen to get kids more interested?
I think so. I think what I’m seeing is in many cases, and in many schools, we‘re still trying to prepare 21st century school kids using 18th century techniques in many cases. We know that these young people are digital natives. We also know from the research that hands-on and project-based learning type curriculum actually works more effectively for kids. So I do think where we have opportunity, even inside the formal curriculum, to give students more project-based learning — I think that will make a remarkable difference in students taking more of an interest to STEM.
We just completed a research report called “MakeHers: Engaging Girls and Women in Technology through Making,” which was looking at the whole maker movement and how it can be used as an innovative channel to also activate interest in these computer science and engineering careers. And at the heart of that maker movement is being able to explore, fail in a safe place, create, and design. And I think if we could bring more of that inside the classroom, it helps us to have a better shot at creating more interest.