Here’s a startling statistic: In order to maintain the current number of scientists and engineers in the US, enrollment and retention of women and ethnic minorities in these fields must rise from a total of less than 25 percent to 75 percent in the next 40 years. This particular outlook is US-focused, but the numbers aren’t drastically different in many other countries around the globe.
The declining participation of girls in STEM careers is cause for serious concern, but thanks to women like Lisa Zagura, girls are learning early on that engineering and technology offer them unprecedented opportunities to make a difference in the world. Zagura initially pursued a liberal arts degree, with a focus on elementary education. While serving in the Peace Corps as a secondary school teacher on Tarawa, an atoll in the Gilbert Islands, Zagura met some engineers who would change her direction. She realized that these engineers were creating positive change in the world in very real and meaningful ways. And that’s exactly what she wanted to do.
Zagura went on to earn her master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and now serves as a vice president and chair of her local Society of Women Engineers (SWE) outreach committee. In that role, Zagura is able to build programs to take STEM subjects to girls in ways that inspire and motivate them. “What we can do from a grass-roots organization like SWE is to help show those girls at an earlier age that there is a connection in what they do every day on an engineering project that will also help the larger population and society,” Zagura says. She notes that exposing girls early and often to positive messages about the STEM subjects is key.
I was proud to help host a Microsoft special event in New York a few weeks ago, Girls in STEM and ICT Careers, where I met Zagura and other inspiring women committed to helping solve this growing global problem. We explored the growing opportunity gap, and how education systems, government, NGOs and industry can collaborate to change perception about STEM and ICT careers from a system that rules girls out to one that encourages them to take up science and technology occupations. Today, I’m thrilled to share my conversation with Lisa Zagura, who has translated her own “a-ha moment,” the realization that engineers help people, into a positive message for girls. This is important work, and I hope you find Zagura’s take as compelling as I did.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
Having engineers like those from the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) participate in outreach activities provides accessible, real people students can look up to. As chair of SWE Boston Outreach, it has been a pleasure to help organize and participate in after school and weekend activities that explain the engineering profession and allow for a hands-on, low stress environment for students to learn about STEM.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
The Society of Women Engineers encourages students to consider engineering as a future profession. The greater number of students that participate in our outreach events, the greater chance the student may aspire to become an engineer.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
Over the course of time, I have learned to always try to be positive, be engaging, and be a role model. Though a student may not want to be an engineer or a professional in whatever you are teaching, there may be aspects of the subject that appeal to them, or aspects of what the profession can bring to the world that the student may find engaging. Regardless of what the future may hold for that student, seeing how a positive attitude and work ethic can be applied is also important.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
SWE tries to use technology in all of its activities. At our more recent Wow! event, for example, we explained how a game console was able to track a human dancer and compare its movements to an avatar. In our Space Night for Girls event, we invited a lecturer to explain how researchers are using the latest technologies to understand what creatures from other planets may look like, their capabilities, and how far away from Earth they may live. We’d like students who participate in our events to benefit from the resources around them and be exposed to the cutting edge of technology they can use as resources.
What is your region doing well currently to support education?
There are a number of non-profit organizations, companies, and individuals in our region invested in addressing STEM events and activities not provided during the regular school day to students. These after-school, one-day events, and weekend sessions provide hands-on, substantive ways for children to learn outside the traditional classroom.
What conditions must change in your country to better support education?
Relative to conditions in the US, events that provide collaboration of schools, non-profits, corporations, etc. provide student services with a holistic approach. It is difficult for any student to get through school, however; even more so, if the student is unable to have their
most basic financial, health, and well being assured on a consistent basis. Provisions to ensure all students are supported in this manner would support a better educational future for all students.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
In terms of advice, I would recommend a student first approach how to relate to their experience as they are. Rather than teaching to a student, invite each to invest in his/her own learning so they are making the investment in what they learn and why they are learning it.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
I would give each child confidence in themselves and the ability to believe that they could embody the change they wish to see in the world.
About Lisa Zagura
- Birthplace: Providence, Rhode Island
- Current residence: Newton, Massachusetts
- Education: B.S. Special/Elementary Education, M.S. Mechanical Engineering
- Website I check every day: Email account
- Person who inspires me most: My grandmother and my great uncle
- Favorite childhood memory: Running around the living room in circles listening to Sesame Street records with my sister.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Chicago, to run the Chicago Marathon
- When was the last time you laughed? At a soccer game Why? It was pouring rain, we were short the requisite number of players, but we were still having fun.
- Favorite book: The Autobiography of Malcom X by Alex Haley
- Favorite music: Country
- Your favorite quote or motto: “Life is a daring adventure or nothing.”- Helen Keller