a q&a with sophia gluskin-braun

Here’s our conversation with Sophia Gluskin-Braun, the coordinator of Spira, a summer engineering camp for young women.

Monica Chin: For people who haven’t heard of Spira, could you give a brief description of the camp and its mission?

Sophia Gluskin-Braun: Spira is a free four-week summer camp at Brown for 15-20 young women going into the 10th grade who live in the Providence area. The camp is dedicated to making science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) accessible to young women regardless of their educational or financial backgrounds. The camp also seeks to build the campers’ senses of identity by showing them that they can excel in a STEM field and by teaching them communication and collaboration skills.

MC: What do you consider when you’re planning lessons and activities for your students?

SG: We have generally decided to go for breadth. Each week we have focused on a different field of engineering. Since the areas can be pretty different, and individuals tend to be drawn to different fields, we want to expose our campers to a large variety of topics. When we are planning lessons and activities, we take into consideration the various science and math backgrounds that the campers have. This is particularly important because the campers all come from different schools, so it can be difficult to ensure that everyone is being challenged at the right level. As such, we like to teach concepts that are not generally covered in typical high school courses but can still be taught in a way that can be accessible to students with different math backgrounds. Many schools tend to not have a ton of resources to do projects, so we want to offer a hands-on way of learning at the camp that uses a lot of creativity as well. We also want to have real conversations about gender and working in STEM fields, so we insert activities related to these issues throughout the camp.

MC: How and when did you decide you wanted to become an engineer?

SG: I didn’t know what engineering was until my 11th-grade environmental science class. Throughout my life I cared a lot about environmental issues, and this class opened my eyes to how environmental issues connect to many other issues. My teacher brought in an engineer from a college nearby, and together they planned engineering-related activities that also related to helping to solve environmental problems. I was concurrently taking a physics class and loving it, and I thought engineering would be a great way to bring together the science that I love and an issue that I deeply care about.

MC: What is your understanding of the issues women entering STEM fields face right now? What has been your experience living through and combatting these?

SG: I can’t really speak for all women in engineering, and I think many people have had many different experiences, especially based on their identities that intersect with their gender identities.

I have experienced challenges working in a male-dominated lab. Most of the people in the lab are very welcoming, and I am so grateful for that. However, I have had experiences there where I have been made to feel very uncomfortable because of the way a graduate student interacted with me. I did not know how to bring this up, and I am in the process of figuring out how to best address this on a larger scale. I have also been struggling with feeling that I do not belong in the lab and that I am not smart enough or don’t know enough to do the work that I do. This has made the lab work more stressful. The lab work has also been challenging for me because I have trouble feeling that I can ask questions when I need to do so. I tend to feel like I am being a burden on others when I do this.

MC: What can schools and universities do to support women entering STEM?

SG: I think it is important for schools to collect data on the experiences of people who are underrepresented in engineering to see how they have felt with professors, students, etc. and to see how best to make a safe environment for these students.

Based on my own experience, I think it is important for schools to hire a more diverse faculty. I think it is also important to have more support for students working in labs, training for graduate students working in labs that focuses on issues of race, gender, class, etc., and also similar training for professors. I think it would be really helpful if professors acknowledged that there are problems within the field of engineering and made it clear that they wanted to be available to support students and that students can come to them if they experience anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. I think they should also advertise other resources for students, especially if students don’t feel comfortable going to professors for support when it comes to these issues.