When chemical engineer Tamara E. Brown launched the Tech Savvy program in Buffalo in 2004, her goal was to convince middle-school girls that they, too, could enjoy being in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field.
Since then, Tech Savvy -- a program hosted at the University at Buffalo and presented by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) -- has inspired thousands of girls. As a result, Brown was invited to Washington, D.C., to be honored for her efforts.
On December 9, 2011, Tamara Brown and 11 other like-minded individuals who have made a difference in the effort to recruit and retain girls and women in STEM fields, were honored at the White House as Champions of Change. The program honors teachers, industry leaders, students and nonprofit leaders who have made great efforts to reduce the barriers that drive many girls and women away from high-paying, highly rewarding careers as American innovators.
“Tech Savvy has been enormously successful in communicating to girls and their teachers and parents the huge potential of STEM careers, ” says Kerry Collins-Gross, PhD, assistant dean for undergraduate education at UB's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which hosts the Tech Savvy program. “UB is proud to host an event that has such value for the girls of Western New York and for innovation in general.”
Brown first began thinking about such a program in 2004, when she became president of the AAUW Buffalo chapter. “I was very aware of the statistics around women in STEM,” she recalls, noting studies showing that enrollment of women in college engineering classes remains very low, and that even among women who do choose STEM careers, many end up leaving them.
“As I thought about solutions, I thought that the first key was opportunity -- having multiple possibilities,” she says.
Growing up in Vicksburg, Miss., Brown says she was fortunate to have experienced a well-rounded, public school education that not only exposed her to French, music and art, but also to computer science, calculus, physics, accounting and psychology. With such a broad background, she felt she had numerous opportunities, which she fully explored at Vanderbilt University, where she was the first student to complete a double major in biomedical engineering and chemical engineering.
After graduation, she took a position in Western New York with medical device manufacturer Matrx, and earned her master’s degree in engineering from UB. She later led Praxair to achieve its first FDA-cleared medical device and is now a member of Praxair's U.S. Project Execution team, where she controls cost and scheduling for the engineering and construction of large capital projects. She is also working on an MBA at Canisius College.
“I thought, if we can introduce the fun and value of STEM to girls, you break the first barrier contributing to low rates of women in STEM,” she says. “Secondly, the adults in girls' lives are critical, so by including parents and teachers in the Tech Savvy program and getting them to actively encourage STEM education, you help make the change from a passive culture to a learning culture that promotes STEM education. This is what we do with Tech Savvy. We give girls multiple possibilities through fun, illuminating, educational glimpses at STEM careers while also giving parents and teachers the tools they need so they can continue to encourage STEM to their girls.”
Every spring, Tech-Savvy brings to UB hundreds of middle-school girls for an intensive one-day conference that encourages them to explore STEM careers, and to begin considering their personal path to college. And because the girls need the support of parents and teachers and other significant adults in their lives, the conference also includes workshops for them. Students spend the day attending fun, hands-on workshops run by scientists, physicians and engineers from UB and from other institutions and industries in Western New York.
Part of the program’s success has been due to the fact that Brown and the people she works with on Tech Savvy are constantly improving it as they get feedback from the girls who attend. “Even today, too many of our students tell us that STEM careers just aren’t ‘girly’ enough or, even when they like science and math, they don’t perceive that these careers will allow them to have fun or help people. This feedback has really helped inform what we do next: For example, last year’s workshops all centered on the hidden needs for technology in unexpected fields, such as fashion design. And this year, we will tackle how STEM helps people, for example, allowing Haiti to rebuild after the earthquake.”
Since 2006, Tech Savvy has positively affected thousands of girls in inner-city and suburban schools throughout Western New York. It also has attracted attendees from Rochester, the state’s Southern Tier and even Canada.
It has been so successful that in 2012 the program will be expanded: Tech Savvy Girls on a Roll, a new follow-up effort for girls in grades 10-12 who have completed the middle school program. “This program will create a new, ongoing extension of Tech Savvy to usher these students through high school with college prep, career exploration and mentoring,” says Brown. The high school program will be launched at Tech Savvy 7 to be held March 17 at UB.
Brown is now working on developing a nationwide plan for Tech Savvy, including a second program in Central New York, as well as a program in her home state of Mississippi.