A “Helluva Engineer” Inspiring Girls to Enter the Field of STEM

March 8, 2024Blair Marks

I’m an engineer….well, actually “a helluva engineer” as the Georgia Tech fight song goes. When I enrolled, the freshman class was less than 15% women, and depending on the specific engineering major, it could have been even lower. One of my professors once told me that although I might be an exception, in general, he didn’t think women should be engineers. A well-meaning family member, concerned that I would not be able to find employment as a woman engineer, even encouraged me to joint enroll at Georgia State University and get a teaching certificate, because, after all, no one would hire a woman engineer. 

Fortunately for me, that prediction proved to be wrong; I followed my undergraduate ceramic engineering degree with a masters in Materials Engineering (Go Blue!) and enjoyed a wonderful career built on that strong technical foundation. Ultimately, I served as a program manager for technology programs (airplanes!) before moving into ethics and compliance.

Women’s enrollment in engineering programs has slowly increased over the ensuing decades since my college years, but in most disciplines it’s still not at parity with men. That means women miss out on an ever-increasing variety of well-paying career options, with implications not only for their immediate quality of life, but also in the long term for their retirement options. 

Over the years, I’ve tried to support opportunities to support programs that expose girls and non-binary identifying youth to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by building their interest when it’s most likely to make an impact and inform their educational and career choices. I’ve also recognized the need for female role models. While in college, I was fortunate to know Dr. Helen Grenga (z”l), the first full-tenured female engineering professor at Georgia Tech - and I experienced firsthand the value of simply knowing that a woman could achieve that level of professional standing in the engineering community.  

Years later, while I was in a professional leadership role, I was made aware that the local Girl Scouts were interested in coming in for a tour. Although others in the office were not particularly interested in making that happen, I pushed it forward. It became an annual event, as the girls met with women engineers, scientists, and technologists and toured our facilities, enjoying workshops and discussing real-world technical challenges.

Perhaps, then, you can imagine my joy when the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ’s) 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy was established in 2013, with Women of Reform Judaism’s (WRJ’s) own Abby Fisher as the founding Chair. (Abby is a scientist and she was also installed as a WRJ Vice President in 2013, when I was installed as WRJ President.) What a concept – a Reform Jewish specialty camp where “scientific inquiry meets fun!” A camp where women scientists and engineers would be part of the faculty and leadership team. Where was this when I was growing up?

It quickly became apparent to Sci-Tech leadership that girls were not enrolling in camp at anything approaching the rate of boys. They asked for help from WRJ, both in the form of recruiting by spreading the word through our network and in the form of scholarship funds for girls. WRJ had not previously funded individual camps, so this led to a very thoughtful discussion about whether WRJ would provide such funding. Recognizing that a WRJ grant was intended to help girls pursue their interests in STEM, such scholarships were seen as aligning with our WRJ priority of pay equity, and funding to Sci-Tech became an exception to past practice. WRJ’s commitment to advancing women made it a “no-brainer!”

Sci-Tech celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2023, and WRJ has continued to provide support throughout that decade. Over the years, WRJ staff and board leaders have visited the camp and in 2015, Camp Director Greg Kellner helped open the WRJ Biennial Assembly with a Boker Big Bang, delighting the hundreds of delegates in attendance from across North America. We don’t know how many girls have discovered Sci-Tech through WRJ word-of-mouth, but we know we have helped.

When I retired in 2022 and had more time to devote to my passions, Abby immediately recruited me for the Sci-Tech camp council. It’s been a true pleasure to work with staff and camp council members who share a commitment to creating an extraordinary environment for self-discovery, belonging, and growth within a community of campers and staff who share their passion for science and technology. That deeper engagement has led my husband Joe and I to provide additional grant funds for creative approaches to recruiting and retention of girls and non-binary campers, complementing WRJ’s scholarships. We are excited about the possibilities!

I hope to see the college engineering enrollment figures for women continue to increase. The on-campus environment is certainly different; at Georgia Tech today, a robust Women in Engineering program provides a supportive community and shared experiences across the university years. Sci-Tech can be an entry point for girls who will eventually find their way into those engineering majors.
The journey to a STEM career begins when we are children. If you know a young person whose curiosity is unbounded, likes solving problems, and would love to explore in practice what their imagination suggests is possible, look at Sci-Tech! 

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