ORDINARILY EXTRAORDINARY

Breaking Barriers

12.30.12 Candice Staples

In today’s society, all aspects of Engineering lead to success in business, education and technology. However, women and minorities are lagging behind and aren’t as likely to enter the industry. Candice Staples is working to close that gap. Candice has worked with Flexus, the Dr. Marilyn Berman Pollans’ Women in Engineering (WIE) Living & Learning Community. This program began in fall 2007.  It is open to first and second year Engineering students, with an interest in promoting gender diversity in the field of engineering.  The goal of this program is to provide a supportive community to encourage success in engineering. While her focus is not to be an Engineer, Candice is a student in higher education that works with Engineers.

There are two components of the WIE Living and Learning Community:  one is residential and one is academic.  Most women live in the same residence hall and on the same floor.  Living in this community helps women connect with peers in engineering while creating a setting conducive to study groups, networking, peer tutoring and a variety of social activities.

If that wasn’t enough, Candice is also involved in iEngineer@UMD. This program is a summer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) camp for rising 4th and 5th grade students. This one-week commuter day camp is an exciting opportunity for girls and boys to learn more about STEM through a variety of fun, hands-on activities. The program allows children to be exposed to the basic principles of Engineering.

Candice was gracious enough to share her thoughts on the industry of Engineering and what it takes to close the gap for minorities and women in this industry.

What got you interested in Engineering?

I’ve always been interested in Engineering, especially after a few teachers in high school recommended that I consider it as a major. Unfortunately, I had no idea what engineering meant, other than it sounded impressive. My junior year of high school I attended a camp designed to introduce us to the field of engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.  It was so interesting to me and I knew one of my strengths was solving problems. Upon entering Hampton University, after my first math and science courses, I quickly dropped any dreams of becoming an engineer and chose to pursue biology instead. The courses were difficult and there was a language barrier with some of the professors.  I felt like a failure and did not know where to turn for assistance. While I did not graduate with a degree in Engineering, I’ve always maintained my passion for STEM fields throughout my career.  It has also become a goal of mine to ensure that students of color have the support and encouragement that they need to remain in STEM fields successfully. Many times, our students abandon their fields for reasons that are not always linked to ability. My goal is to help students remove or cope with any obstacle coming their way.

The disparity between the number of women and men in Engineering is alarming. What has Flexus done for students in terms of camaraderie, support and confidence to stay in this field?

Women in Flexus are more likely to remain in Engineering than women who enter the school of Engineering in general. They enjoy living together and have an immediate network of friends upon their arrival to campus. As a student within Flexus, they are required to take a one-credit course each semester during their freshmen and sophomore years together.  As the TA for that course, I work with the instructor to ensure that each week we review some facet of leadership within Engineering or that we encourage the women to discuss their experiences within their classes. Some students describe their experiences with their male counterparts, who sometimes dismiss their talents and skills.  Others never feel that they are treated differently. Either way, it is refreshing to see how the women support each other throughout this process. The program seems to keep them focused on the goal of graduating with a degree in Engineering. Ironically, there was a study done at the school of Engineering that revealed that although women have higher GPAs than the men, they are less confident in their abilities.  It is our responsibility in Flexus to help build that confidence.

Just a few stats:  http://www.wie.umd.edu/aboutus/female-stats

(It is interesting to note that the majority of women that are in Bioengineering and UMD is well above the national average in producing female Engineers.)

Having graduated from a HBCU, were there difficulties entering an arena where you are a minority in several ways (being a woman AND being African-American)? 

It’s always difficult being different from the dominant culture, no matter where you are. However, I find that working in this environment (work and school), some of my identities are more salient and visible than others. For example, in my classes there are more students of color. UMD’s College of Education does a great job of ensuring that diversity is more than just an afterthought, it is a core belief.  Being a woman and a woman of color makes me feel as if I’m part of the dominant culture, at least within the four walls of my classes. Working at the School of Engineering is a bit different. I am a woman working with a Women in Engineering program, so we all have gender in common. Racially speaking, yes I am one of very few. Initially I was worried about how the students would receive me, but it has been a great experience. The only time it seemed to stand out was when I had to discuss diversity with my students. It was not easy to plead the case that diversity was not just important to me, it should be important to us all. Instead of focusing on race, I decided to focus on class, which resonated with them more.

What are your goals for utilizing your expertise in Engineering? 

My goal is to bring awareness to the many opportunities in the Women in Engineering programs at UMD.  Even with the great strides that we’ve made as a society with gender equality, so many girls and students of color are either not encouraged to pursue STEM disciplines or they leave the field after a few introductory courses.  I want to show students that they can do it, and do it successfully. There are resources available to help students get through the difficult introductory courses. I also encourage students to live in living and learning communities. My students always let me know how helpful it is to live with other students in engineering. They don’t feel alone, they study and suffer together, and yet they build a social network of like-minded individuals to spend time with as well.

The iEngineer@UMD program targets rising 4th and 5th graders.  However, it’s only for one week. What more can area school districts do to promote S.T.E.M. programs in our schools? 

School districts should encourage more practical applications of scientific concepts. Something as simple as building a tower made of spaghetti designed to hold a ping-pong ball could really ignite a passion for civil engineering for a child. Also, lots of engineering, and STEM in general to an extent, requires teamwork. If teachers encouraged students to solve problems together, children will learn at an early age to appreciate the perspectives of others. Not to mention leaders always emerge, so it’s a great way to build leadership skills. Also, many times students hear about a field without realizing what it means. Bringing guest speakers or even local college students with STEM majors would help abstract fields become clearer to students.

If a parent wants to get their child into Engineering at an early age, what are some other activities, games or angles of approach that can be used to gauge interest from a child?

Watch your kids closely and observe their strengths. Take their curiosities seriously. If you have a child that likes to take things apart, encourage that by giving them puzzles. If they are older, they could play around on Google Sketchup. If a child likes mixing things together in the kitchen, they may enjoy Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Mix oil and water in a bottle with some food coloring and discuss what happens and why? One skill in Engineering that is highly sought after is spatial visualization. It can be taught, but if you feel your child might be strong in that area it would be good to cultivate that.  Engineers should be good at looking at a 2D object and visualizing it in 3D. What might look like a L-shaped building to me, could look completely different when the object is rotated. That’s visualization and a child that can do that will be very competitive in college and on the job market.

On major news networks, we see segments all the time about the United States losing pace in the race for education supremacy and technology advances. Where do you see the United States in 10 years in the areas of S.T.E.M. education and technology?

The United States isn’t mad enough at our falling rankings to improve the number of students in STEM fields. As a country, we need to focus on student learning, rather than test scores in the lower grades. It doesn’t make sense for our teachers to feel pressure to teach to a test, then for students to fail introductory courses at the college level because of lack of exposure to certain disciplines. We need to emphasize the importance of innovation and that can’t be done if we don’t allow teachers the flexibility to teach math and science in ways that are practical for students. Innovation is how the United States became a world power in the sciences and technology in the first place.  Hopefully in the next 10 years as the sustainability movement picks up steam, that will encourage more students to pursue STEM fields. I also believe that colleges should be more cognizant in supporting students during the introductory STEM courses, considering that’s when we are more likely to lose students.

I’m sure that studying takes up the majority of your time. What are some other hobbies that you enjoy? And explain the importance of having other interests and hobbies.

I enjoy having brunch with friends, spending time with family, watching mindless television, and running. It’s very important to have interests and hobbies outside of school. It’s so easy to become immersed in all things academic, because at this level you’re studying exactly what you want to study. That doesn’t always feel like work.  Then being in a cohort, or having classmates, who are experiencing this process with you can easily make your world feel small. It’s important to have friends outside of academia to remind you of a few things: 1) there is life outside of school, 2) you are capable and smart, 3) you aren’t that smart, and 4) to get your mind off of the daily grind of graduate school. Let me explain. Graduate school is competitive and everyone is so bright that sometimes you begin to question your own intelligence. Friends and family remind you that you are smart and will be fine. At the same time, my friends and family are quick to ground me and remind me that I’m not all that special if I start smelling myself.

I don’t always enjoy it, but I need to run. It clears my mind. The first thing that I do when I wake up is head outside or to the gym. I can run in silence and meditate or listen to a playlist to get me energized for the day. My goal is to make sure I set my schedule in a manner that allows me to exercise in the morning. It’s an investment in my physical and mental health that is well worth it. Graduate school can be quite stressful and it is easy to pick up bad habits to cope with the stress. If I’m going to drown my sorrows in gummy bears and coffee, the least I can do is burn a few calories.

Engineers don’t usually go into that field fueled solely by money. What greater contribution do you want to add to society?

This was probably the most difficult question to answer, mainly because I’m not an Engineer. But also because before this year, I truly believed students pursued Engineering based on their strength in math and science and/or their desire to make money. What I’ve learned is, while future income is important to my students; the majority of them had very personal and practical reasons for pursuing engineering. For example, some students want to become Bioengineers to build prosthetic arms and legs because they might have seen a family member need one. Some see the beauty in bridges around the world, like the ones designed by Santiago Calatrava, and want build something like that in their communities as civil engineers. All of them want to create something that has an immediate and lasting effect on society. It is exciting to see their excitement as they come into their own.

Contact info:

Candice L. Staples

cstaples@umd.edu

301.405.9434

http://www.wie.umd.edu/

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