Friday, September 12, 2008

Margaret B. Bailey: Winner of the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award

"In my younger days when I was pained by half educated, loose and inaccurate ways which we all had, I used to say, 'How much women need exact science.' But since I have known some workers in science who were not always true to the teaching of nature, who have loved self more than science, I have said, 'How much science needs women.'"

-Maria Mitchell (1818-1889)
Most of you readers have likely heard of Maria Mitchell, the 19th century astronomer who became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was a professor of astronomy at Vassar College, where she was the first director of the Vassar College Observatory, a position she held until the year before her death in 1889. But she was born and raised on the island of Nantucket, where she first learned astronomy from her schoolteacher father, and where she opened her own school in 1835.

Today the Maria Mitchell Association of Nantucket honors her memory every year with the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award, which is given to "an individual whose efforts have encouraged the advancement of girls and women in the natural and physical sciences, mathematics, engineering, computer science and technology." This year's winner is Dr. Margaret B. Bailey, Kate Gleason Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of mechanical engineering at the Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology. From the award announcement:
Dr Bailey is the founder and executive director of WE@RIT (Women in Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology) where she leads a dynamic organization that aims to improve the retention of current women engineering students, as well as expand the pipeline of future women engineers through the delivery of a series of outreach programs for girls and women in K-12 grades. Mentoring is at the core of the WE@RIT programs from linking first-year with upper-level engineering students, utilizing undergraduate engineering students in the K-12 outreach programs, and a bi-weekly workshop series for RIT female engineering students. Dr. Bailey has also created a two week engineering camp for 4th-9th graders, “Everyday Engineering,” led by RIT women engineering students, and a shadowing program RIT undergraduates with professional engineers. Clearly a catalyst for improving gender diversity at RIT, Dr. Bailey’s programmatic ideas and initiatives are easily replicable at colleges, universities, schools and workplaces. Dr. Bailey plans to use the $5000 MM-WISA cash award, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, to work with a small group of science and math teachers to improve the quality and transferability of the “Everyday Engineering” curriculum to other universities and/or 4th-9th grade classrooms.
Earlier this year the WE@RIT program was awarded the WEPAN Women in Engineering Program Award, as "a model for other WIE organizations demonstrating best practices in comprehensive pre-college outreach, recruitment, and community building initiatives."

Bailey feels strongly that increasing the number of women engineers is an important goal:
The United States needs to double the number of female engineers—to three in 10—in order for the nation to capitalize on the intellectual capital of women and attain its true potential for innovation.

That forceful advice comes from Margaret Bailey, the Kate Gleason Chair and professor of mechanical engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering in remarks on the RIT news podcast Studio 86. The specificity of her call to action—that we need three in 10 women engineers in this country—is what makes it such a compelling point (as opposed to a wishy-washy phrase saying the world needs more female engineers). [...] Bailey says reaching a “critical mass” of 30 percent female engineers (more than twice the current number)—along with achieving other diversity goals—will lead to more and greater technological advances.

The point she seems to be making is not so much that women have special skills that men do not (even though that's the impression given by the article I linked to above), but that the engineering community is missing out on a large pool of potential new ideas and expertise when women chose to pursue careers other than engineering. Listen to the full interview, in which Bailey talks about women in engineering and the university's engineering and mentoring programs for girls.

In addition to directing the WE@RIT program, Bailey also directs graduate students, performs research in the field of energy conservation, and teaches several courses.

Bailey will be presented with the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award at a ceremony on September 19th.

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