By Tom Nash
Eleven-year-old Elizabeth K. Cole
recently won first place at the
middle school level in the
Engineering’s Grand Challenges Essay Contest, sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering’s “Engineer Girl” program.
Elizabeth, who has grown up in Vienna, drew on her experiences in robotics and other subjects to write about topics ranging from the need for engineers to make advances in detecting pollutants and biological agents to helping injured soldiers with prosthetics.
“I chose to write about bio-medical engineering because I thought that was the field that would help people most in the future,” Elizabeth said. “It was hard choosing a field to write about, so in my essay I wrote about detecting cancer earlier and helping treat cancer with radiation. My grandmother has breast cancer and she suffers a lot from it and I wish that we could help people with cancer better.”
NEA senior program officer Catherine Didion served on the committee that judged the essay submissions. She noted Elizabeth’s attention to how her topic applied to current events such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“She did a nice job of talking about how bio-medical engineering has an impact on all our lives,” Didion said. “What was nice is that she had very explicit ideas about how this can be done. That’s exactly what engineering should do: provide solutions for humanity and she provided great examples.”
ELIZABETH IS CURRENTLY home-schooled by her mother, Lori Cole, who has a background in bio-technology. Elizabeth’s father works in computer science.
“We’re a bunch of nerds,” Lori Cole said.
When Elizabeth’s parents tried to place her in public school, she was far ahead of children in her age group in nearly every subject, especially math and science. When they encountered resistance to advancing her to the level she tested into from Fairfax County Public Schools, the Coles asked and received a religious exemption that allows Elizabeth to take classes at home through Northwestern University’s online learning program geared to gifted students her age.
“I study algebra and physical science, which I wouldn’t normally be able to take at the public schools,” she said.
Elizabeth believes part of the problem was their focus on the state-mandated Standards of Learning tests.
“They only seem to focus on studying for the SOLs,” she said. “The SOL for fourth grade was history and all they focused on was history. They had no science worksheets. We had two inches of history worksheets and not many math worksheets.”
ELIZABETH BELIEVES this is among the many reasons why American school children are falling behind in their math skills compared to students from other countries.
“We hardly did any science,” she said. “When [kids from other countries] come over here they’re wicked advanced in math and science and they’re a part of all the top courses and we Americans are not as advanced. And we aren’t doing anything to change that in public schools.”
No one seems to deny that given her age and gender it may be a little unusual for Cole to be interested in robots and bio-medical engineering. Unusual, however, is exactly what NEA senior media relations officer Randy Atkins says is needed in a field dominated by men.
“We would obviously like to accept both genders of young people in engineering,” Atkins said. “Girls in particular are currently underrepresented and therefore it’s critical to get women involved in engineering ... The more diverse viewpoints you have the more problems you’ll solve.”
Elizabeth feels that once girls begin following a science-oriented path, it’s often difficult to find support as the teachers become mostly male, which leads to many of the girls giving up.
“I think that makes girls [get] discouraged and drop out because there are no women role models in engineering that they can look up to,” she said.
Atkins believes that girls tend to follow career paths aligned more toward social services, which leaves the NEA trying to change the perception of engineering itself.
“It’s stereotypically in the male’s realm and one thing that’s been said is that females pursue careers that help people,” he said. “We feel engineering ought to be viewed more that way.”
The Engineer Girl essay contest, promoted on the group’s Web site www.engineergirl.org, is open to both boys and girls at the middle and high school level. While the name may sound exclusive, Didion says the point is exactly the opposite.
“Unless we specifically invite girls,” she said, “they don’t feel welcome.”
Elizabeth, however, doesn’t seem to need much convincing that the field is open to her, especially now that she’s free to study whatever she chooses.
“I might become an engineer,” she said. “This [award] has really made me think about becoming an engineer. It sounds very promising and interesting.”