Engineered to Succeed: Lessons From a Student Pursuing a STEM Career

Encouraging young women to join the ever-growing community of women who aspire to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) requires positive role models, and an educational system that provides unbiased opportunity for all.
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Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

(Part One of a two-part series on "Girls in STEM")

President Obama recently said,

One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science and engineering. We've got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we've got a whole bunch of talent... that is not being encouraged.

Encouraging young women to join the ever-growing community of women who aspire to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) requires positive role models, and an educational system that provides unbiased opportunity for all -- one that emphasizes deeper learning skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration to help students graduate high school "college- and career-ready."

I first met Cindy Arteaga when she was a student at New Tech Network's METSA (Math, Engineering, Technology and Science Academy) in Carrollton, Texas . Now a junior at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, Cindy is pursuing civil engineering and mathematics degrees. She's currently vice president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers chapter at SMU.

As a Latina female majoring in engineering, Cindy's path has not been an easy one. She is a first generation college student whose parents emigrated from El Salvador.

I asked Cindy what motivated her to seek a STEM career. "When I was in middle school, my teacher sent me to a camp operated by IBM," explained Cindy. "I was exposed to engineering, robotics and simple design work. That experience has always stuck with me."

Cindy didn't have many women in her life who could serve as role models for a STEM career, but it was experiences such as attending the IBM camp (as well as being a technology aide in seventh and eighth grades) that helped formulate her dream of becoming an engineer.

There are rewards for choosing a STEM career. According to The Department of Commerce's "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation" (August 2011), Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men.

"Being a technology aide in middle school helped me discover what I wanted to do in high school," said Cindy. "I knew technology was a good career choice -- one where I would have an excellent opportunity for finding a great, well-paying job."

Cindy believes her high school education prepared her well for college.

Civil engineering enables me to use all the skills I learned in high school through project-based learning with real world applications -- critical thinking, the ability to collaborate and work with others, communication and presentation skills.

She considered pursuing a degree in electrical or mechanical engineering and took an electrical engineering class for exploration purposes. "I was the only girl in the class," she said. But rather than finding that situation intimidating, it made Cindy work harder -- resulting in her achieving the second highest grade in the class.

"I didn't have role models for the various types of engineers -- electrical, mechanical and civil," said Cindy. "Much of my college and career inspiration and preparation is owed to Mansoureh Tehrani, director of METSA."

Mansoureh is well-suited to serve as a mentor for young women desiring a STEM career. She had a career in information technology for 15 years at companies such as Apple Computers, Texas Instruments and American Airlines before switching careers to, as she explains, "help transform public education."

She saw firsthand that college graduates did not have the right skills for the workforce. "Most knew their content, but did not know how to communicate, collaborate and innovate," said Mansoureh.

"METSA's culture mimics a business world," added Mansoureh.

We expect everyone to take the initiative to diagnose their learning needs, formulate goals, identify necessary resources, choose and implement appropriate strategies and reflect on their accomplishments towards completing professional quality work in a timely manner.

This focus on emulating the business environment in the high school setting played a positive role for Cindy. She explained that Mansoureh made the difference by teaching through example and showing Cindy what she was capable of achieving. "Through Mansoureh's leadership at METSA," said Cindy, "I experienced a school environment that helped me develop the professionalism needed to pursue an engineering degree."

Cindy hopes for a career in structural engineering and design. "I interned last summer in construction management and worked on renovating Dallas' Love Field," she said.

It was industrial work, and I really liked it. It was a way to see a small airport getting rebuilt day by day. And someday, I want to drive by something and say 'I was a part of that project... I helped make that happen.' Even today, whenever I drive by Dallas' Love Field, I smile, knowing I had a hand in that renovation.

Cindy is proof that a STEM career is a great choice for a woman. Armed with the knowledge and research appropriate to a specific area of study, young women who are motivated, dedicated and willing to "put in the work" can find these fields immensely fulfilling. There are risks and challenges, but there's the opportunity to become a true pioneer and an example to others.

Part two of this blog on "Girls in STEM" will focus on the role of the school principal or director as a mentor for young women on the path to a STEM career.

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