Inspiring Young Women, One Mind At a Time

By James Daly

Jennifer Turner remembers the moment she made a big difference in a young woman’s life.

As a global procurement program manager at IBM, Turner was participating in Discover Engineering, an interactive classroom program designed to encourage students to consider a career in engineering. During a classroom visit, Turner spotted a girl who was clearly ready to be bored. 

“This event was the last place in the world she wanted to be,” Turner remembered. “But after designing and building things, she lit up. We were having a friendly competition, but she became totally engaged and wanted to win this thing — and did!”

As the young woman was leaving, she turned to Turner and said: “I’m going to be an engineer.”

Rewarding moments like this are what inspired her to create her own program in her hometown of Peekskill, NY. Engineering is Fun is an event organized with local businesses and civic groups. The day-long gathering uses clever and creative hands-on activities ranging from robotics to kitchen chemistry as a way to get school-age girls interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields.

A Lesson in Polymers

The program started a dozen years ago when Turner invited IBM engineers Tom Shaw and Ed Jones, both now retired, to visit the Girl Scout troop she leads. Shaw and Jones helped the girls make Gak, a slimy substance made from glue, water, and a pinch of Borax. The exercise was good, messy fun, but it also taught the kids about polymers, which occur when similar units bond together.

The event was such a success that it became annual — this year it happens on March 20 — and she estimates that more than 1,100 girls have experienced the program.

The core idea remains the same: bring students who may not have considered STEM-based careers into contact with the people and energy in those fields. They’ll go to the nearby Westchester County Forensic Laboratory, for instance, to work with scientists taking fingerprints and footprints. Or travel to a local branch of The Home Depot to design and build a birdhouse. Or the girls will collaborate with IBM engineers to make a robotic arm or hovercraft.

Her STEM evangelism extends beyond Engineering is Fun, as well. As a volunteer at Peekskill schools, Turner has been able to get more than $20,000 in grants for STEM and other educational and enrichment activities. 

“I’m surrounded by scientists and engineers and the great work they do,” says Turner, who has worked at IBM for nearly 22 years. “I want young women to see what I see every day.”

Changing Stereotypes

While not a scientist herself, Turner’s enthusiasm for STEM is contagious, a passion her husband shares and which seems to have been transmitted to their daughters. Mya is a freshman at Boston University where she studies mechanical engineering, while 15-year-old Briana enjoys joining her mom at Engineering is Fun events.

A native of Queens, N.Y., Turner graduated from Howard University in Washington DC where she received a B.A. in communications and business and an M.B.A. in general management.  She remembers watching TV as a child -- shows filled with tired professional stereotypes. Doctors were male, secretaries were women, and “engineers were just old men who built bridges,” she said.   

These persistent images may be one reason girls enter the STEM fields at dramatically lower rates than boys. Women make up half of U.S. college-educated workers, but only 28% of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Foundation.

Over the past decade, Turner has worked to change that. “I want to show these young women the range of STEM careers they can pursue and that they can make a really good living in this field,” she said.

She realized that her efforts needed to be entertaining as well as informational. “When kids have fun, they learn,” she said.

“I love helping young people discover a passion,” Turner added. “We can all make a difference in someone’s life.” And Turner does that very well, one young mind at a time.