What does it take to be an engineer?

Ever since I embarked on this venture of creating engineering toys for girls, I’ve had quite a few people ask me the same question: “Have you considered the possibility that, uh, girls maybe just aren’t ‘wired’ for this kind of thing?”

I find this a strange question to pose to a female engineer (unless you think she is some kind of freak of nature). I don’t think I’m really that much of an oddball, although I do happen to have abnormally small hands (99th percentile). High five.

Nevertheless, I’ve taken the question to heart and interviewed some Ivy League neuroscience professors to get to the bottom of it. Here’s what I learned:

Whenever this topic comes up, the big thing everyone cites is that boys have greater spatial skills than girls. This refers to a famous study by Vandenberg & Kuse in the late 70’s, where they found boys outperformed girls in mental rotation of 3D objects in space. People argue, and I’d tend to agree, that spatial skills are an important factor in becoming successful in engineering. However, here’s the CATCH… There have been lots of other spatial skills tests done where girls and boys score the same. These tests aren’t so famous. So researchers keep using the same old Vandenberg & Kuse test over and over again so they can be sure to get published. This means the literature overestimates the size of the sex difference. While there may be a male advantage, it is not as big as people claim.

Furthermore, studies show that with practice, girls can develop the same spatial skills as boys. And here’s the kicker: studies also show that participants who performed better on spatial skills tests played with construction toys growing up. Bingo! We’d like our toys to help girls develop those spatial skills.

But enough about spatial skills. I don’t know why everyone harps on spatial skills as being this mission-critical factor in determining potential success in engineering.  There are so many other skills that come in handy when it comes to studying and working in engineering. For example, even knowing what engineering is would be a nice start!

Beyond that, I, for one, have found that my skills in empathy have aided me in designing solutions that solve real people’s problems.

What about you? All you fellow engineers out there…what skills have you found to be useful in your engineering careers? What skills can GoldieBlox start instilling in young girls?

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About debrasterling

Debbie Glasband is a jane of all trades – product designer, writer, illustrator, brand strategist and marketer. She’s (one of the too few) women who graduated with an Engineering degree from Stanford in 2005. Since then, she’s done branding consulting for T-Mobile, Microsoft, Organic Valley and the New York Knicks. In the nonprofit world, she volunteered in rural India for 6 months and then launched “I Want a Goat,”one of the first viral fundraising campaigns. Her passion? Utilizing the power of branding, design and humor to make real change in people’s lives. Her favorite toy growing up? Playmobil.

15 thoughts on “What does it take to be an engineer?

  1. As a software engineer, I don’t think I use spatial skills all that often… perhaps I do when understanding how files relate to one another and how a piece of code runs through its execution.

    More important than anything else, I think in my craft it’s all about understanding tradeoffs. There are always multiple solutions to the same problem, and being able to consider the pros/cons of each with regards to perfomance, cost, complexity and the constraints you might face (low budget, customer deadline, etc.) occurs every day, with every line of code I write.

    Also, strong math skills are important alongside logical, step-by-step thinking — especially important for understanding other people’s code and debugging your own.

  2. I’m an architect, which is similar in many ways to an engineer. (We engineer the overall building design, as opposed to individual components.) I have learned my trade faster than most for one key reason: The courage to ask “stupid questions.” I think this is a combination of curiosity + self esteem.

  3. While learning new engineering concepts I found it very useful to always relate these concepts to the workings of machine. For others, this “machine” could be a Goldie Blox toy.

  4. These studies always make me laugh – down to the way parents treat their newborns is where the “spatial abilities” can be influenced, so we can’t get an accurate control group or test group of equally treated boys and girls to really have accurate data and accurate analysis on this topic. My parents definitely encouraged me in activities that developed my own spatial skills, but my schooling did not (I was the only girl to opt-out of home-ec to take woodshop instead). That’s why Goldie Blox is so so important!!

  5. What an insightful post! Thank you. I just got this website link from a very cool educator I know.

    I also believe that skills in perspective-taking are very valuable to anyone creating anything for anyone else. and… I find your question really tough. I’ve been told by teachers that girls, as young as 8, will start to separate themselves from that sort of scientific curiosity that we recognize more in boys. I don’t know why this is. I am wondering if it is partly a natural inclination to steer themselves toward the “girlier” things and how much of it is about grown-ups telling them which toys are for them and which toys are for boys.

    I’m sorry I don’t have all the answers except to say, please continue to your great work. (I wonder if I’ve seen your toy somewhere…) From the land of moms and kids I can tell you that the sentiment among many parents of girls is that there seems to be a lack of choices if you are not interested in the stereotypical girly girl stuff. Even if you are, it usually can’t fulfill all needs. I have a feeling that you can instill any skills in any kid, girl or boy, as long as you recognize what motivates and interests them. I think lots of girls like geodes, crystals, drawing, and designing things that they can use and wear… so maybe it is half a practicality thing and half about watching something grow/transform.

  6. As a fellow software engineer, I agree with Jason that spatial skills do not seem to be that important to that field of engineering (unless you are working with 3D graphics or robotics or something else in three dimensions). Mapping out objects in your mind is useful, but I think that’s a different skill.

    Programming is very much about problem solving, specifically algorithmic problem solving, and this might be the kind of thing kids could pick up from games. I remember that there were a series of flash games that tried to teach engineering skills here:

    http://jayisgames.com/tag/zachtronics

    and I specifically remember The Codex of Alchemical Engineering being about algorithmic problem solving.

    Another valuable programming skill, especially in this age of open source software and endless coding forums, is your memory. When you break a problem down into subproblems, most of those subproblems have been solved already, and the solution is out there on the internet. If you can remember where you you saw this solution, you can save yourself a lot of effort.

  7. I can only speak from personal experience, so I don’t know how it works for everybody else, but… I’m embarrassingly awful at math. I’m also very clumsy/uncoordinated, and most of the things I build are very makeshift/imprecise. I hate working with numbers and data. As a kid, I scored below average on the spatial part of my IQ test.

    However, I care about making a difference and I love creating things anyway. All it takes is a desire to build good things that impact people. Most of that is internal. What you guys need to figure out is how to teach more girls to harness that internal drive to make a difference using technical skills. It will probably involve emphasize the social impact side of engineering more than the technical side.

  8. Problem solving skills, the ability to listen, and empathy. There are many ways to solve a problem, engineering or otherwise, but the desire to create the best possible thing/solution for the people that will be using it will set you apart and make your ideas relevant.

    As an aside, I had the advantage of helping my mom do a lot of housing demolition, redesign, and reconstruction as kid and as a result have pretty awesome spatial skills!

  9. The biggest thing that I’ve seen in awesome engineers and problem solvers is persistence. As a teacher, I saw more of my female students show persistence over the long haul, even if they weren’t “smarter” or figured things out the fastest in class. In the long run, I think that is huge and makes all the difference. People make a big deal about inherent gender traits, but I’m not sure about those, I think so much of it is about nurture and self fulfilling prophecies that we bestow on young kids…which is why I’m pumped about what y’all are doing.

  10. I’m a civil engineer with a background in environmental engineering. I disagree with the two software engineers above; I think spatial skills are crucial, at least in my area of engineering. A lot of what I do is like putting a big, 3-D puzzle together, except there isn’t just one piece you can choose. You pick the puzzle piece that makes the most sense for the situation, but maybe you move it around a few times before you decide where you finally want it. This might change based on finances, new information about the building site, or it could be just the owner’s whim.

    There is data processing, drafting, math calcs…all kinds of stuff! But I think understanding how and why something works provide a good foundation for engineering. I think encouraging that sense of curiosity and the questions that come with it are really important. Rube Goldberg machines come to mind pretty quickly, and are definitely a lot of fun for kids.

    I don’t remember having a favorite toy, though I did enjoy both “girl” toys and “boy” toys. A lot of the “boy” toys – legos, lincoln logs, train sets, erector sets, kinex….I could go on…focus on building/creating something, whether it is a little wooden house or a mini operating ferris wheel. Encouraging girls to create would be a great place to start!!

    Best of luck to you guys, I’m excited to see where this goes!

  11. as a product design engineer, i’d have to say spatial reasoning skills are pretty important. since i’m not in a very intense “hard engineering” field, its mostly about having a qualitative/intuitive understanding of how physical things behave. for example, visualizing things in 3d, judging what geometries and materials may be more structural or flexible, and being able to follow the workings of physical mechanisms.

    aside from that, i think a lot of engineering comes down to higher level skills like problem solving and your general process. before you can put your spatial reasoning to work, you need to be able to frame the problem in a way that’s solvable and set things up in a way that will logically lead you to a solution.

  12. As a guy with a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering and a Masters in Applied Math I have noticed a very specific gap in the way pure scientists and applied scientists approach problems. While pure scientists need not think of visualizing the problem AT ALL – topologies and geometric spaces come to our aid almost instantly and we have no problems thinking about multispace problems without visualizing them as mathematicians… engineers absolutely need to visualize and prioritize, since there is nothing wrong with theoretically building a 300,000 ton, 1 km long scrubbing column to reduce emissions, but it is practically impossible!

    I think it is very important to build a sense of realism and practical application into engineering education and do this from an early age.

  13. I have been exploring for a little bit for any high quality articles or blog posts in this sort of house . Exploring in Yahoo I eventually stumbled upon this website. Studying this info So i’m glad to exhibit that I’ve an incredibly good uncanny feeling I found out exactly what I needed. I such a lot definitely will make sure to don?t fail to remember this site and give it a glance regularly.

  14. As an Industrial Engineer at Disney, we are often asked to design ride queues, layouts for warehouse operations, or check-in/check-out procedures for hotels. I think any toy that provides an opportunity to change the existing process into something that works better would spark their imagination and spatial skills. My favorite games always involved building something – whether it was making forts from household items, or playing Microsoft Bob designing room decore, it always required imagination.

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