Lighting the Way for Girls in STEM

Karen Panetta doesn’t hold back, and she’s brilliant for helping others.  

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Karen Panetta Tufts University.pngHere’s the story of a little girl who grew up and did what she wanted to.

A computer engineer, inventor and the Associate Dean for Graduate Education at Tufts University, Karen Panetta develops signal and imaging processing algorithms, simulation tools and embedded systems for applications for robot vision, and biomedical imaging applications.

In other words, some pretty nerdy stuff.

She has won a number of awards for social impact, teaching and mentoring, ethics, and engineering education, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering Mentoring.

She founded the “Nerd Girls” program, which encourages young women to pursue engineering and science.

Karen is the editor-in-chief of IEEE WIE Magazine. Her passion is utilizing her engineering knowledge for the benefit of humanity—and she’s accomplishing just that.

In this EdTech Digest long-form interview, we decided to have a good listen and really let our interviewee tell their story, as long as it takes.

It’s candid, it’s soul baring, and really, it’s no big deal—except that it is!

Karen’s enthusiasm is infectious and her attitude is at once refreshing and awakening.

We hope you enjoy what she has to share as much as we did.

We got fascinated with your background because it looked like you were somebody who’s been very successful in the STEM field and could be, and has been, and very easily took it upon yourself to be—a role model for others. What better thing to do then feature you; tell us a little bit more about your story, and how things came to be with you, that’s really the origin of this…

Karen: Oh, terrific. That’s even easier for me, talking about me. Oh, boy. Where would you like me to start? Well see, first of all, you have to know that I call myself an accidental STEM expert advocate because it was not something I ever saw myself doing. It just happened to be something that—I fell into that role as time went on.

Uh-huh. Cool. Then, maybe you could just tell me a little bit about how it all started. If you don’t mind, we could go back to your first interest in the field, like when you were a 10- or 11-year-old girl, and what kind of start did you get in grade school?

Karen: Sure. When I was in school, teachers advocated for boys, and girls they were very set. Girls became teachers and not doctors. What happened was I grew up with two older brothers and a father who were in construction, so I was always around construction equipment, and hydraulics, and my brothers were playing with race cars. When I used to want to play with them, my dad would say, “Oh, girls are supposed to sit there and look pretty.” Then, I got to play matchbox, you know those little cars like Hot Wheels, with them. My brothers always made me be the garbage man because they didn’t want to be the garbage man. Then, one day my dad said, “Well, honey, the garbage man makes the most money,” so I never got to be the garbage man again. It was an example for me that they wanted me to be something that they didn’t want, and then as soon as they found out that it was cool, it was okay for them to want to be it.

I also decided—I loved music, that was another one. Played piano, flute, absolutely loved music, singing. I was terrible at art. Couldn’t draw and I was horrible at sports. Those were the things that I thought I was going to be a failure for because I was like, “Wow, if I can’t do sports or be beautiful…” I wasn’t thin at all. I wasn’t skinny. That’s what I saw for girls like, “Oh, there’s no options out there.”

I realized that me being me was more important than me trying to fit in, and I embraced that at a very young age.

My influences on TV at the time were, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, and I loved anything to do with magic. Not so much the magic, but making things happen that nobody else could do or imagining crazy things. Even though I couldn’t put my finger on it, it bothered me that these two women that I admired, the whole thrust of those TV shows was them trying to hide their talent. That bothered me. Even at a very young age I was like, “This isn’t quite right.”

I was very much into fashion, and I didn’t dress like anybody else, I didn’t act like anybody else. Sometimes you felt like an outcast, but it was interesting because after a while I got to appreciate when I’d walk through a mall everybody would stare at me. My mother said, “Why are they staring at you?” I said, “Because they’re looking at my boots, or they’re looking at my pants that I bedazzled” or something that I would do myself. Finally, I realized that me being me was more important than me trying to fit in, and I embraced that at a very young age, probably when I was about 12 or 13.

At that time, computers were coming out and my dad said, “You should go into this computer stuff.” I was taking a programming class and I was just blowing everybody away in the class. It was logic. It was straightforward. My first flow chart was how to change a tire, which not many other girls even knew how to do, but I had that experience. I was taking real-world things and I’ll say ‘modeling’ them, even though I hadn’t written a line of code. That type of logic and being able to explain things to people in a piece-wise or logical manner was very important and I was like, “Wow, that’s a talent to be able to tell that story to communicate that you can do this.”

My dad, while I was in high school said, “Okay, college is coming.” I was 16 years old when you pick your college career. He says, “You’re going to be an engineer,” and I had no idea what an engineer was. I just knew I liked programming, I liked computers, I liked music. He said, “You’re going to be an engineer because you need a job that’s going to provide you financial independence and support that bad shopping habit of yours.” For him, it was all about making sure that I had some career that I could financially support myself. He also put it on the line. He says, “I don’t want you to ever have to depend on anybody else to support you, especially a man or a husband.” Ironically, there are a lot of women today that are in domestic violence cases or abuse cases say that the reason they stay it’s the financial reason, which is kind of interesting that my dad had that foresight to know that.

I got into Boston University and I commuted because my family, again, couldn’t afford for me to go, plus it made no sense if you’re living 15 minutes away by train why you would want to live on campus. The live-on experience was not something he saw worth another 10,000 dollars. I commuted and that added another problem because you don’t have that built-in support mechanism when everybody’s studying, and so it got harder for me to look at and feel smarter because these kids would get in and they’d have their homework done, they’d have all the solutions, and I was going at it alone.

That was my second lesson in engineering was—first was imagination and being creative. My second lesson was when I got to college and it was like, “You know what? I need to build teams because they can jump …” It wasn’t that I was stupid. It was, I would get to a hurdle and spend an hour or two on it when somebody could just push them over that hurdle discussing it, when looking at the problem from different perspectives and help them through it. I didn’t have that network, so I decided that—me, being outgoing, I went and made my own network of other commuters. We had an expert to everything. I was the programming logic expert. We had a physics expert. We had a math expert. Together, it was a core team of five of us and we had everything—there were mechanical engineers, and aerospace. We had everything covered and we studied together all the time, and it showed. Immediately, it showed.

At Boston University, when I enrolled they gave you that lecture, “Look to your left. Look to your right. That person’s going to be gone.” That’s a harsh reality. A lot of good schools don’t do that today because it’s not about, “Hey, we’re here to lead you out.” It’s more about we’re here to support you. That’s what they did. Those of us that stuck together made it, and it wasn’t that we were the most brilliant in the class. We were the most adept at knowing how to network, and knowing how to be creative about our problems, and time management. That got me there and I said, “Oh, I’m really good with computers.” I became a computer engineer.

Those of us that stuck together made it, and it wasn’t that we were the most brilliant in the class. We were the most adept at knowing how to network, and knowing how to be creative about our problems, and time management.

To be perfectly honest, Victor, I still had no clue what an engineer did because I was learning all this theory and learning all the fundamentals and all I thought was, “Okay, computer engineers build computers.” That’s what I did. I got a job at, back then it was called Digital Equipment Corporation, which today you probably know at Intel. It went through many renditions. Compaq Computer, and HP, and now it’s Intel. I worked in Hudson, Massachusetts developing cache architectures, which was a fabulous, fabulous experience to say, “Hey, you’re running on my processor.” I think that was really a cool thing for a 21, 22 year-old person to be able to say, “That that’s my processor.” I did that and I kept doing that for another 10 years.

After a while it was like, “Okay, I’ve designed all these computers.” That’s great, but I was getting bored. I was really getting bored because it was like the fundamentals were the same. Even now, I look at cloud computing and I’m like, “Yeah, I understand the technology is different, but at the same time I think the fundamental idea is still there.” A lot of the things and the challenges to me were becoming stale. At that time, that’s when I actually started getting into STEM because I was moving up very rapidly, getting promoted quickly, and they brought in a failed tenure case professor to be our supervisor. He had a PhD and had never worked in industry. I sometimes joke with people and say, “Well, you know, I’ve had a real job where you can be fired.”

This guy came in clueless about what we did, but he was looking at 20 year-old textbooks on a subject and all of the sudden came in to me and says, “Well, why aren’t you implementing your simulator this way?” We all looked around at one another like, “Oh my God. This guy doesn’t realize it.” I tried to educate him on it, and I tried saying, “That’s old technology. We’re far more advanced than that.” He’s like, “Well, it’s not in the publication. It’s not in the literature.” I said, “It’s not in the literature because it’s proprietary. It’s our competitive edge that we don’t publish how our algorithms work in our simulators.” At that time, we were the only company in the world that could fully simulate and execute software on simulated hardware. I mean, it was an amazing, amazing project.

He said, “No,” and the next thing I know, I went to the manager and I said, “This won’t work. We’re talking about simulating billions, and this guy wants to go back to technology that couldn’t even do 100.” He said, “You know what? He has the PhD and not you.” That was the answer I got. I said, “Okay, fine.” I was getting my masters. I got my masters part-time while I worked full-time. I said, “You know what? If that’s going to be the barrier, I’m going to get that PhD.”

I went back part-time, worked at night, worked at weekends on that PhD, and I was the only woman in my research group. I was the only American in my research group. I’d get there, they used to say, “Oh, Karen’s here. We have to speak English.” I thought that was really strange. I was like, “Oh my gosh. Why are there no Americans and U.S. citizens in the school? Where were they?” I realized it’s because we graduated with so much debt. In our undergraduate, everybody just wanted to go out and make money so the people who were coming were international students and those who—they were getting funded to come, by advisors—but they didn’t have that undergraduate that we all had.

I got that PhD and at that time I then saw that the company—there was a downturn in the economy, and they started laying off people. I was going to move to a research lab in the company. This program called Engineers into Education came up. The whole premise of this model was that companies hire new hires right out of college, but they didn’t have the skills or the business savvy to really be technical contributors because they hadn’t seen real world projects. They didn’t really have real world experience. The name of the game was take this program and you get two years of your salary. You have to guarantee that you will try to go back to any type of teaching. I could have been a museum curator for all they cared and it would have satisfied that. I said, “Let me try this.”

I went back to Tufts as a visiting professor. First, I was the richest student on campus because I was finishing my PhD at a full engineer salary. Then, my second year I went to Tufts as a visiting professor. I was the only woman in electrical and computer science there. It was one department. I went in and the department chair was really very open. I don’t want to say open: very chauvinistic and very direct. He said, “You’re here to be a role model for women and you better be a good teacher or you’re out of here.” I went, “Okay, fine.” At the same time he says, “Well, we don’t really hold high hopes for you that you’ll get any research. We really don’t.”

I walked into my first classroom of 90 students. There wasn’t a single woman. It was the first woman professor they had ever had in front of them. 

They already set the bar because I was a woman who dressed in pink suits and high heels, and he said that to me. He said, “You know, we don’t have women come in. Look at you, you’ve got your hair and makeup.” Nowadays you would never have an interview like that, but he was saying what he saw and he was saying what he felt, which as blatant as it was, I would rather deal with somebody like that than someone who just doesn’t tell you and does it behind your back.

I walked into my first classroom of 90 students. There wasn’t a single woman. It was the first woman professor they had ever had in front of them. Of course, they already had an image of what I should have looked like. I should have been wearing work boots, and jeans, and had a mustache, and looked like I just stepped off … I don’t know. They do not expect somebody who looked like Elle from, what movie, Legally Blonde. I’m not blonde, but I had the pink, I had the whole suit on with the matching shoes. They challenged me technically. They wanted to immediately show that, “Hey, we know more than you.” I would let them talk and then in two sentences I could concisely technically destroy them. That shut it down. It was like, “Oh my God. She knows her stuff.” They would talk about the real world and they didn’t have that experience.

I was like, “How can you educate a population when you don’t understand the people who are going to use your technology?”

That’s when I decided that these students really — all the professors I worked with, they came right out of school. They never worked in industry. They never worked on real-world projects, and they weren’t transitioning any of the technology into practice of commercialization. To me, I was like, “How can you educate a population when you don’t understand the people who are going to use your technology?” I then started placing the students in internships and I got push-back from faculty saying, “You know, that’s vocational. Why are you wasting your time on that?” I said, “Well, look at your competing schools.” You have the alumni give back money, but they don’t have money if they don’t have jobs. I tried to present it to them in simple concepts, and the next thing I know a donor came in and said, I want to open a position for an internship coordinator for students. That’s how Tufts got its very first engineering internship coordinator. Then, I-

Can I interject?

Karen: Sure. Oh, sure.

This is really fascinating. I’m loving this story. I’m just wondering, you obviously had to, in some ways, work a little bit harder than a normal person. Or, not a normal—wow. Just what the “normal” was for them, which is a man.

Karen: I did. I did.

If you were a man you could blend in and you could be average or something like that, but you were forced into, I would say, “super competence”—or, you just happened to be super competent. Obviously, it seemed like you had to work a little bit more, fight a little bit harder so that you could maintain your peace of mind or whatever and not be razzled or riled by these others. I’m just wondering—

Karen: Yeah, yeah.

Were you resentful for that—or were you just of the attitude, “take it and win” and you just prospered, you flourished, you just pushed through?

Karen: Yeah, that’s a great question. Because I came from industry, I was used to it. I was used to it and I noticed—it was interesting because I noticed that later on as more women faculty or more female students came along, I noticed that they weren’t used to that. They would be appalled at the behavior, and that’s why there was such a huge attrition when I was in industry. Women will walk. They vote with their feet. They walked. They would come from institutions. I was prepared for it since undergraduate because my undergraduate institution treated me like that, too. It was like, “Go home and have babies,” back then because there were very few women. I wasn’t supported there.

It was like, “Go home and have babies,” back then because there were very few women. I wasn’t supported there.

Then, remember, I made that decision when I was 11 or 12 that, yes, I’m going to dress differently, look differently, and I don’t care. That comes with a cost. Being yourself comes with a cost because, you said it, I’m not blending. I’m standing out. Now, if I’m putting myself out there, they’re like, “Well, if we think that people who dress like you are stupid, then you’re stupid, and we don’t have high expectations for you.” I came in with a NASA grant. At that time, it was a three-year grant. They looked at that and they said, “Well, it’s not the National Science Foundation.” I was like, “Okay.”

It was interesting because the department chair was under scrutiny for hiring me. He was like, “Oh, you know, these computer science.” They were at a war. Computer science and electrical engineers were at war and they said, “She’s never going to get tenure. This NASA thing, research.” He says, “Go to Washington and come back with a National Science Foundation grant. I’ll buy you a plane ticket. Go to Washington and come back with a grant.” When somebody says that to me literally, back then I thought, “Okay, I’ll go to Washington. I go to the National Science Foundation, I knock on doors, and I come back with a grant.”

That is exactly what I did. That is not the way it was supposed to be, but that’s exactly what I did.

I honestly feel that the program directors at NSF felt sorry for me, but they also looked at it like, “This woman’s coming from industry. She has not been trained in this academic mind of ‘this is how grants work, this is how writing research works.’” I did, I came back with a grant. Not only did I come back with a grant, but then I was awarded one of the nation’s highest—the Career Award, the Young Investigator Award. That was one of the first in the university. I came back and they were astounded. Rather than patting me on the back, the department chair says, “Well, how many journal papers do you have?” Then, another guy said, “Well, apparently they’re funding this kind of research.” The research I was doing at the time was in the area of nano technology, which they had no clue I was doing.

Yes, I stood out. I don’t think I was resentful. I just thought I’m just going to show them. I think that’s part of the dilemma for women is there are two things you can do when you get this type of behavior. One, you can say it like, Karen, “Oh, really? Watch me. You think I can’t do this, watch me.” The other reaction is like, “I’m not putting up with this. I’m leaving.” The way I was born and raised my father always said to me, “You fight. You fight. You get that PhD. You fight.”

The other big critical piece, which I apologize for not mentioning, that was a turning point for me was in college. My sophomore year I joined, as a student, the IEEE. We had a student branch. This gentleman came out on a weekend from IEEE, came all the way from Ohio. His name was Jim Watson. Came all the way from Ohio as an IEEE volunteer and we were having a student professional awareness conference and we had like 12 people show up. What we were watching was the deans were always whenever a company would come in during this hiring crunch and want to offer somebody an opportunity, they took the offer to the same top five students. The rest of us that weren’t in the 4.0 never got these job offers. The only way that I saw that I was ever going to get a job was that I better get into one of these professional organizations that can help me.

On a weekend, there was only 11 or 12 of us, this gentleman flew in. He worked with us all weekend on everything from resumes, interviewing. The encouragement, it was the first person who ever encouraged me besides my family that said, “You are a smart student. You can do this.” He didn’t even know me. He just said, “You showed up here and you’re asking me intelligent questions, and the fact that you care and you know that these are things that you have to solve,” he says, “You will be very successful. From then on I was like, “Okay, I need to stick with this organization.” Honestly, that was I will call it my backbone and that was really my empowerment because that’s where I got my strength when I wasn’t getting it in industry, when I wasn’t getting it in my university, when I wasn’t getting it from my managers. There was always some sort of mentorship or someone in IEEE that could do that for me, so that was key.

Wow. Good. Could you talk a little bit about Nerd Girls?

Karen: Sure. Now, I’m at Tufts. They say, “We’ve hired you to be a role model for women.” There are no women. Then, second year there I get one woman in my class and she does not want to be mentored. She wants nothing to do with me. I was like, “All right. This is going to be a problem.” I started by looking at the labs that were … They hand you a lab and say, “Here’s circuit theory. Here’s strength in materials. You’re going to smash concrete.” You look at these and you’re like, “I don’t want to do this.” It’s very difficult for me to teach something or to say, “Oh, yeah. Let’s start up this lab. I don’t want to do it, but you have to do it.” I felt the student’s pain and I looked at it and I’m like, “No wonder women don’t want to come into electrical engineering.” First of all, we didn’t know what it was and the way they were advertising it was horrendous. Oh, it’s really complicated math problems and sitting in cubicles for long hours. Whereas, oh, you’re going to be designing cars or whatever.

I always had some benefit of humanity to my projects in my class.

They didn’t have any exciting descriptions for the field and the projects were not real world. I would look at what I was teaching and I was like, “Whoa. Where’s the beef?” It’s like giving someone a hammer and saying, “Here, keep hammering the nails, but we’re never going to build the dog house.” I started by saying, “Well, let’s pick real-world projects.” I picked them from industry. I picked them from my experience. I always chose a component of something that I thought was up and coming. Back then it was, ‘Hey, let’s get this renewable energy thing and solar energy. I always had some benefit of humanity to my projects in my class, even though they were small scale. All of the sudden, I had young ladies showing up at my door and saying, “Well, I was thinking about engineering, but I’m really not good at math and science.”

That was the next lesson I learned is that everybody thought, “I have to be the very best at math and science.” I convinced a group of girls. I’m like, “No, switch majors.” It can be any form of engineering. Mechanical, electrical. I had chemical, biomedical, computer science. I pulled them all together and I said, “We’re going to build a solar car.” They all looked at one another like, “How is that relevant to us?” I said, “Because I want you to learn like I did to learn how to work on teams, how to be able to talk to one another.” Even though you’re all engineers in computer science, you all have your own language now in your own discipline. I said, “I want you to learn a new technology that no one else would have on their resume.”

We did that. We built a solar car. It worked. When we were done, I went to an event with a van full of students and in there at the end of the year they were talking about their interviewing and you could just hear the way my Nerd Girls were talking about their interviews. They were very polished, very professional, everything flowed versus, “Oh, like, I haven’t like heard that like from the recruiter like …” It was night and day. I just stood back and I was like, “Oh my gosh. What just happened here? These girls are amazing.”

I had thrown them in front of politicians and corporate CEOs to do presentations, I put them in front of military commanders. At every point they said, “Did you prep them?” I’m like, “No, no. I don’t prep them.”

I had thrown them in front of politicians and corporate CEOs to do presentations, I put them in front of military commanders. At every point they said, “Did you prep them?” I’m like, “No, no. I don’t prep them. I teach them how to do a presentation. I teach them how to talk. I teach them how to write, but I never said, ‘Here, these are the words I put in your mouth.” That’s when I realized the power was not just in the technology that I was teaching them, but in those skills, the confidence—and they had more offers than anybody going up. People took notice.

The minority students started taking notice and joined the team. I had a group of African American males. Every African American male in engineering in Tufts was on Nerd Girls. People would say, “Well, how did that happen?” I said, “Because I built a community. I built a team and these students saw it.” Then, the next year what happened I think that was pivotal was somebody said, “Well, you’re so great. You built a solar car. There are no jobs building solar cars. What are these girls going to do?” I said, “Well, it’s not about the solar energy. It was about the skills that they learned, and the new programming languages, and embedded systems, and the communication, and the—all these sub-systems.” Then, everybody’s like, “Oh, I get it.”

Then I got a call. I was reading a newspaper about a historic landmark off the coast of Rockport, Massachusetts. Somebody sent me this article and said, “You’ve got to see this.” I looked at it. It said, “Rockport Lighthouse about to lose its historic designation,” because they’re running a mile-long cable to light the lighthouses that were built in the 1700s that used to be powered on whale oil. I got a group of students together and I said, “Hey, you know what? We just did the solar energy thing. Why don’t we go out to this lighthouse and outfit it with solar panels so that they don’t lose their historic designation?”

At that time, a new-fangled technology came out called LED lighting. I went and I proposed this to the Thacher Island Association who runs the island, but we also had to get it past the Environmental Protection Agency because there was a sanctuary for birds on the island. They said, “You’re not putting up any wind turbines.” I said, “Why? They chop the birds up?” They said, “No, it’s vibrations on the ground. They won’t nest anywhere where there’s vibrations.” Now, my team is not only talking engineering, they’re talking to environmentalists, they’re talking to historians, and preservationists, and also aesthetics. How is this thing going to look? The island has the best wind maps off the coast of Massachusetts so that was another one. It also has great potential of power.

We went and looked at every aspect of the renewable energy for the island. We decided let’s try this new fangled LED technology and the guy said, “I don’t want something crazy that’s going to break and blah, blah, blah.” I said, “Look, let me try it. If you don’t like it, it’s not going to cost you that much,” because I funded all the projects. I funded them. Any outreach projects we ever did I was responsible. We did it. It ran on a car battery, and it was much smaller than the coffin sized stuff that they were used to seeing. It worked, and not only did it work but every Coast Guard lighthouse in the United States today now uses our technology that we developed. I joke with people and say, “That technology was developed by a bunch of 19, 20 year old Nerd Girls.” That’s when we went on the Today Show and all of the sudden it became like, “Wow, talented women breaking the stereotype.”

CREDIT was at this time I was also doing a lot of outreach because I would bring these girls into schools. I see a lot of outreach programs using young women in STEM, but really it bothered me that what these girls left the program with was I can be a good teacher. I wanted them to know, yeah, you can be a good teacher but you can be more than that. I started doing all these outreach presentations and would go in and ask these children, “What do you think a Nerd Girl looks like? What do you think an engineer is?” Predominantly, we always came out holding a wrench, bad skin, bad dressing, antisocial. That stigma drove a lot of young women away. That was huge.

Then, I also figured out the turning point for young girls because the young … We used to bring a solar car to a school. Oh, kids would clamber to it. We did a high school outreach once and this was about age 16, 17. The girls physically all step back and looking at one another fiddling with their hair and whatnot. The boys just pushed them out of the way and jumped on the car. They start interacting with my Nerd Girls and then the young boys at the school were asking my girls technical questions, and they knew everything about cars, and they knew everything about solar energy. Then, one boy made a comment in front of his classmates and saying, “These girls aren’t only smart, they’re really hot.” The girls in their class were like, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. It’s okay to be smart? My peer guys, the boys that I’m interested in like these girls?” They literally pushed my girls out of the way to get to that car to show the boys that, hey, I can do this, too.

I noticed that’s where the turning point was like, “Okay, you know what? There’s that peer pressure that we’ve been seeing on television that you need to be beautiful and everything and that boys have to do, and that boys were accepting the Nerd Girls, and that was the girl way in to getting teenage girls to understand it and getting males to understand that smart women are great. They’ve got everything. You want to be with these girls.” That’s how it came about.

Wow, wow. This is really cool. It’s fun hearing all this. Well, let’s see. I want to talk a little bit about technology’s role in education. We’re talking a lot about STEM and cultural aspects of STEM. What do you have to say about the state of education today in light of all the influx of people using their thumbs texting and perpetually on their smartphones?

Karen: Right, right. Sure, sure, sure. Well, I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of back ache problems in the future so chiropractics is going to be a good career to go into. I think what’s happening in STEM education today is that they have more challenges, more interesting “people problems” is more a way to put it. For instance, when I designed something years ago, I just looked at how it’s going to be used. I was building computers that I could never afford to use. I was building mainframes for banks. I was out of touch with—I’m never going to own one of these things. It’s the size of a closet. I can’t fit in there. [In contrast,] the technology we design today is immediately commercialized and everybody’s using it. If I put it in the bank, I knew I was—I didn’t have wireless back then. I didn’t have people that would be trying to break in.

Today, not only do we design for functionality, but today’s education has to train our engineers and our scientists to say, “How are people going to misuse this?” Whoever thought? The cell phone was a great invention. Who ever thought it would be used as a trigger on a bomb or anything like that? Then, you design parts and computer parts and I’d have to worry about how I’m going to throw them away. Why would I care how I’m going to throw it away? Oh, is it because it’s an environmental problem? No. It’s because people that are supposed to be recycling them are shipping them off overseas somewhere. They have defective chips and they’re re-packaging them and selling them as good. Now, you go and you buy a computer or you go buy a car with a control system in it that has one of these chips that were supposed to be thrown out, and you buy it, and something fails. It could be life threatening.

karen-at-nasa-langley-research-center.jpgIf you think of military applications, that’s horrible. That’s called counterfeiting. Because technology is so widely available to everybody at every walk of life, that means every walk of life can now abuse it, and that’s something I think we never had to deal with in education before. This is, again, not just about—You can be the best technologist, but for the longest time I used to hear people in engineering say, “I went into engineering because I don’t need to write. I don’t need to communicate. I don’t have to take English” or something. That’s absolutely false now. The best engineers, STEM experts, are those who know how the person, the customer, that’s going to use this—is thinking. I know about the user interface. We just talked about the thumbs. I don’t use my thumbs. I actually use all the fingers because I learned how to type years ago. They know this. They know how people are going to use it. They’re thinking about how the other people’s mindsets work.

I still don’t understand, for example, why is the power button put on the back of the computer where I can’t find it? Well, aesthetically that looks nice and I guess people do find it, so there are a lot more human factors involved and computer education or engineering STEM education now can’t just be about the technology. It has to be about the human computer interaction. It has to be about the functionality. It has to be about the cost. Back in the olden days if I was selling a half a million dollar mainframe, I didn’t really worry about the cost because these huge rich banks were going to get it. Now, I’m worried about, “Okay, this mobile device is going to be used by a desperately poor woman in India to sell her fish or something.” How do you now make sure that the battery power, the consumption, things like that—we never really worried about the power before.

Today’s generation, these Millennials, really truly want and will spend more money for products that are safer and more humane. An engineer now has to think about those factors.

A lot of people in mobile communications think it’s just about looking at the user interface. Now, everything’s about power. How do I charge this thing? How long is the battery life? How do I make it lighter? Education is not just about your own field. It has to be about how your piece fits in with everything around it and how it’s going to resonate with customers. Is it safe? Not just safe to use, but is it safe and protected from unauthorized use or intended misuse? That’s where the wireless and cloud computing encryption and everything comes into play.

karen-meets-president-obama-at-the-white-house.jpgYou’re not going to find any one person—When I first started, engineers used to say, “I don’t want to code where everybody has to simulate everything.” Today, even in Women in Engineering Magazine they just did an article on how simulation is replacing animal testing. That’s the other big thing is, today’s generation, these Millennials, really truly want and will spend more money for products that are safer and more humane. An engineer now has to think about those factors.

Well, this is good.

Karen: Do you want to know more about the state of funding these things? Is that what the question … I don’t even know if I answered your question.

No, no. That’s fine. That works. I’m just wondering, right now you’re kind of exuding through your example wisdom for anybody who wants to take it, but I’ll ask anyway. Any words of wisdom to leaders shaping education, technology, STEM; for leaders that are shaping schools and school culture? Any thoughts for them?

Karen: Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure. Everything should be what I call gender equitable, which means either gender. The project should be real world. The projects and everything should be relevant to the real world. What worked for teaching theory and suffering through theory 30 years ago is not resonating. Technology is changing so much faster now. When I say gender neutral, I mean, make sure if, well an example I give is if I go into a classroom and I say, “We’re going to design high heels today.” You can bet that I’m going to have a bunch of parents come screaming that my son is not designing high heels. On the other hand, if I say, “We’re designing sneakers,” no parents will complain because all kids use sneakers.

That’s a simple example, but that’s something that I think has predominantly excluded different populations of under-represented students because if you come from a population—in my Nerd Girls outreach, we would say, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They’d say, “A social worker.” I was like, “What the heck is a social worker?” I didn’t even know, because I didn’t come from that kind of environment. If you can all be what you see—and that’s all you see for role models, well, that’s huge.

I don’t want to put down Ivy League, but they’re not representative of the population. Let me just put it that way. I think that we need more inclusion.

I think that the other big predominant issue that I would like to see changed is probably 80 percent of all under-represented students or low-income students start out in community colleges, yet if you look at the representation in leadership on educational boards or even advisors to government, they all come from Ivy League—I don’t want to put down Ivy League, but they’re not representative of the population. Let me just put it that way. I think that we need more inclusion. If 80 percent of all of our students in our nation start out in community college, then why aren’t we considering what’s going on there, and making our education conducive to their learning as well? I think that my advice to our leaders is, “Be more inclusive and understand the population that you’re serving.”

karen-with-the-society-of-women-engineers.jpgIt’s great to have people that come from an institution that only 1 percent of the population gets to attend, but that’s not representative of our country and that’s not representative of inclusion. If we want more under-represented and more women in STEM, you’re going to have to start having all those voices heard, and I think that’s the big piece, is: having more voices heard. It doesn’t always translate into cost. Everybody thinks, “Well, it’s going to cost money.” No, it’s just changing mindsets. It’s really just changing your approach.

The other piece of advice I would give is, we’re killing our public school educators with requirements, and you must have it this way, you must do this, you must learn the new thing. If they’re skilled in English and journalism and all of the sudden you’re trying to force them to teach computing or to teach technology, and that’s not in their wheelhouse of expertise, that’s not fair. If you’re not going to get more resources to train them, then that’s an intimidation factor. How can you be successful? Again, when I’m teaching Circuit Theory, if I don’t like what I’m doing it’s very hard to teach. Your front line people need to be enthusiastic for what they’re teaching and we need to be able to give them the skills and competencies, the confidence, and rewards to do that. Right now, I think we could do a much better job at that.

If we want more under-represented and more women in STEM, you’re going to have to start having all those voices heard, and I think that’s the big piece, is: having more voices heard.

Wow! Well, Karen, I’d love to talk to you more and interview you again down the road, but I think this is enough for a really great read. I really appreciate you taking time—I know you do so much with so many people. I really appreciate you. Thank you very much.

Karen: Thank you, and thank you for this great opportunity. It really is exciting for me to do that. Thank you so much. We’ll talk soon!

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


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