The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Gender Gaps in Engineering and Teaching

Katie Mangan over at the Chronicle of Higher Education has posted an article called In Terms of Gender, Engineering and Teaching Are Lopsided – Diversity in Academe. The article includes a photo and some quotes from me.

I don’t think it comes across well in the article, and this is probably just due to how I phrased things, but it’s not so much that I see myself as a role model for girls to go into STEM careers (for starters, I’m not female).  Rather, I see it as part of my job to ignore what society tells anyone that they can’t do and focus on bringing out what they can do. That includes women in STEM fields, among a vast array of other demographic disparities. Mangan’s article does draw needed attention to this important issues, and I’m glad I had the conversation with her.

To take a step back though and look at the big picture… I think the gender gap in any profession, including teaching and engineering, has a lot to do with the perceived status of the profession. That’s why I got raised eyebrows for my career move (that and maybe the salary hit) — not because engineering is “testosterone-fueled” as Mangan writes. (What does that mean anyway? That engineering requires testosterone to run? I disagree with that perhaps unintentionally reinforcing implication.)

The real question some people were wondering, whether consciously or not, was why would I want to voluntarily move from what society treats as a high status profession to one it treats as a low status one?

By extension then, we see the layer underneath: despite the advances women have made in graduation rates, they are still unconsciously relegated to lower status within almost any profession. It’s not a huge leap to predict from there that our highest status professions (doctors, law firm partners, CEOs, superstar athletes, engineers, etc) are going to be predominantly male. We can claim neo-liberalism all we want, but the statistics repeatedly show that our underlying assumptions and how we have chosen to structure society are still infused with inequities — among them, allowing women to reach their potential in all fields.

We have a long way to go, on so many issues. It starts in the classroom. Which is why I’m here.

Creative Engineering

“We believe that technology plus creativity equals art and innovation.”

– Adam Sadowsky.

Neat talk by Sadowsky at Google ZeitGeist on some of the crazily creative engineering projects that they have put together recently. Who says science and engineering folks don’t have an artistic side?

And I actually have an indirect connection to the work these guys do… A few of my former colleagues at NASA Dryden competed as Team Aerospace on the show Unchained Reactions: Fire and Ice. I was actually originally on the team as well, but couldn’t make the filming dates due to the fact that a play I was acting in was opening that weekend!

Anyway, their innovative ideas got noticed by others, and they’ve been working with Brett Doar (the guy doing the demonstration at the end of this video) on some upcoming big-budget ads (which they can’t tell us about yet).

Color for Dollars


From Karagiozis et al 2011


I didn’t work on this specifically, but this was the nature of my previous job. A humorous aspect was the fluid nature of the acronym CFD… formally it stands for Computational Fluid Dynamics, but others that captured the often tricky business of interpreting the results included Colorful Fluid Dynamics, Color For Dollars, Contours For Debate, and my personal favorite, Can’t Fucking Decide.


A little over a week ago, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, the culmination of years of engineering. The mission’s landing, in particular, was the subject of intense scrutiny as Curiosity’s size necessitated some new techniques in the final segments of the landing sequence. As it hit the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, the compression of the carbon dioxide behind the capsule’s shock wave slowed the descent.  At roughly 1,000 mph—speeds still large enough to be supersonic—Curiosity deployed its parachute. Shown above are the parachute in numerical simulation (from Karagiozis et al. 2011), wind tunnel testing at NASA Ames, and during descent thanks to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The simulation shows contours of streamwise velocity at different configurations; note the bow shock off the capsule and the additional shocks off the parachute. These help generate the drag needed to slow the capsule. For an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the wind tunnel testing for Curiosity’s parachute check out JPL’s fourpart video series. Congratulations to all the scientists and engineers who’ve made the rover a success. We look forward to your discoveries! (Photo credits: K. Karagiozis et al., NASA JPL, NASA MRO)

“Toward More Bird-Like Flight: Thinking Outside the Box”

A great TEDxNASA talk by someone I’m proud to call my friend and colleague. Al’s talk speaks for itself, so I won’t bother summarizing it here. However, I will add that the ideas in this talk have led to one of the most innovative and exciting things going on at NASA Dryden right now, and I’m not even sure its an official project.

A team of engineers, designers, and machinists, as well as some incoming students from the NASA Aeronautics Academy, are actually going to be building and flying two Horten wing gliders as research-instrumented RPVs here in the high desert. The PDR was yesterday, and what I saw was a design that is smart, lean, and suitable for rapid prototyping.

Al’s approach to project management is Antoine de St. Exupery’s quote personified:

Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.

(If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.)

It works. Everyone in that room is inspired; rather than needing to be pushed to work, most have to be pulled back from going too crazy. Decisions are enabled at the lowest level that makes sense, and ideas emerge and mesh at the front lines. This is no small matter either… applying these ideas to wing and propulsion design lead to massive practical fuel savings for the whole aviation industry, and Dryden might be the first to push this envelope and grab some flight data. 

At a time when NASA is being criticized for being a lumbering bureaucracy well past it’s prime, it’s so refreshing to see that grassroots and groundbreaking projects can organically form and even thrive at Dryden when the right people are given enough free rein.

You can read Al Bowers’ own perspective on his blog post for Dryden.

Tradeoffs – Or: Exhibit A on Why We Should Pay Teachers More

Excerpt from a conversation with a coworker here at NASA Dryden, in my personal opinion one of the smartest people we have. Note that he knows I’m considering a career opportunity, but he doesn’t know at this point what it is. I presume the assumption is that I am going for another engineering-related position.

So, two rocket scientists were walking down the tarmac…

Me: Yeah, I’m still thinking about it. It’s a tradeoff. I really believe in the mission of the organization, but I just want to make sure I’m not doing something stupid. It would be a lot less pay, and I don’t know what to do about the house and all my stuff. It’s a lot to give up.

Coworker: I say go for it, if you think you can do it. That kind of passion for something greater, that’s worth so much more. Like, one time, I was thinking about teaching you know? Math. I would love that. I know I could help students learn to love it like I do.

Me: Why didn’t you?

Coworker: I have to support my parents now. There’s no way. Even if I didn’t have that, you know, it would be nice to support a family. I had this one math teacher… made Calc fun and understandable. I wish I could do that. But yeah, there’s no way. I could go into engineering which is so much more secure, so yeah, it made no sense to go teach.

So… yeah. Do we need to pay our teachers like rocket scientists? Maybe, maybe not. The better question is: what would a rocket scientist teaching and mentoring your kids every day for a school year be worth to you?

I’m single, debt-free, and without dependents; futhermore, I have the academic qualifications and work experience to return to engineering if teaching really doesnt work out. Though I would be giving up a lot to do this, I can actually seriously consider it without having to make these kinds of tradeoffs. Should highly qualified people who want to teach have to pit their desire to make a difference against the material security of their families?