A camp taking place at USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Institute of Engineering Community and Cultural Competence (IEC3) and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) this week will introduce 32 predominantly African-American and Latino females in the L.A. area to STEM design thinking concepts and aerospace engineering.

Dr. Michelle Flowers Taylor, founding director at IEC3, said that the idea for the program came out of her doctoral research on academically high-achieving girls of color. In interviewing them, she realized that many of them found their way to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

“I thought that was really interesting, how these girls are not only academically successful but they’re going against the stereotypes and succeeding in highly challenging fields as first-year college students,” Taylor said. “I then correlated my research into working with middle-school girls from the same population, primarily African-American and Latina. So I launched an institute here at USC IEC3 in 2015, and started working with middle-school groups, their teachers and their families, to create programming that is culturally responsive, problem-based learning in the field of engineering.”

The camp started on Monday morning and runs through Friday afternoon. The girls, age 11, 12 and 13, come from various middle schools in the Southern Los Angeles area and will be learning about aerospace and rocketry from day one.

“We will be applying our knowledge to build paper rockets catapulted by air,” Taylor said. “By the end of the week, the girls will design and build their own rocket that’s fueled by an engine. The purpose is for them to have a hand-on experience with rocketry, understanding what it is, the physics involved with rocketry, the social value of rockets — because many people don’t know that there are potential social impacts that are positive when we talk about rocketry because the payloads can help provide satellites to provide internet to rural communities, or satellites to monitor environmental changes.”

That connection to aerospace is key, Taylor said, because students from underserved populations often don’t see how rocketry has any impact on their lives.

“They may not connect with it,” she said. “But they do connect with societally relevant efforts, like helping other people communicate better. Or helping the environment. Or exploring other worlds, so we can improve our own existence here on Earth. So the angle is making aerospace relevant to the lives of girls who don’t typically find themselves interested in this field. The hope is to inspire them to say, ‘OK, I can see a place for myself working with rockets,’ or ‘I can see a place for myself working in this form of engineering.’ The angle is making aerospace and engineering relevant.”

Flowers said the movie Hidden Figures had a short-lived impact, but the challenge is retaining that momentum. In addition, there are, of course, issues of institutional racism.

“I would say aerospace is probably no different than any other engineering field in that there are boundaries that exist for women and women of color,” Taylor said. “I don’t want to point the finger specifically at aerospace but I do want to say that, historically, there have been challenges. It wasn’t always easy for a person of color or a woman to feel comfortable if they walked into even an aerospace classroom at university level and they’re one of two or the only one. Research shows that can be a little bit unwelcoming — that might be a part of it, but I can’t speak for all of aerospace. I can really focus on preparing these girls for something that helps them have an interest, to potentially spark a desire to continue and persist over perceived difficulties or stereotypes within the field.”

Hillary McDonald, goIT specialist at TCS, added that another big challenge is introducing the concept of engineering to people who have never been exposed.

“Nobody really understands what engineering is until you’re in it or you know somebody who is an engineer,” McDonald said. “In order to want to be an engineer, I think you have to have exposure to that, of any kind, whether it’s aerospace or civil or any kind of engineering — you need some level of exposure at a young age. Most people who go on have a role model they can look up to. This does not exist in these girls’ lives yet, so we’re trying to provide some level of representation for them and some level of exposure, so they can go on and look for these things in the future. We’re providing role models and experiences so they can see themselves as engineers in the future.”

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