Girls Can Solder Too: Gadget Camp Teaches Manufacturing Skills
I can’t remember ever seeing a woman working as a “genius” at our local Apple Store’s Genius Bar. The women wear the same blue t-shirts, but they work on the floor selling products. Isn’t it high time there was at least one woman working as a “genius”?
Gadget Camp is a summer workshop that has the ambitious aim of changing the imbalance of women working in the manufacturing field and also in technical and similar fields. A New York Times article about the camp points out that just over a quarter of the US’s 11.7 million jobs in manufacturing are held by women. Even with the economy stagnating and over 40 million people out of work, some employers are still saying that they’re aren’t enough applicants who can “operate computerized equipment, read blueprints and solve production problems.” Gadget Camp, founded by Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs — a foundation “partially affiliated” with the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association — aims to change that.
Gadget Camp is located in River Grove at Triton College, a two-year public school, outside of Chicago. Since 2004, Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs has awarded $2,500 grants to 112 manufacturing-themed camps, most for boys and girls. But the latter are a tough audience. Says Marcia Arndt, a board member of the foundation:
“It’s not easy getting people into the career field. I think there’s a myth out there that manufacturing is dirty and undesirable, but it’s really highly technological.”
To younger people, digital technology, finance or health care are simply “more alluring opportunities.”
The idea that manufacturing jobs belong to guys persist: Technical fields, and those requiring scientific or mathematical backgrounds, tend to be dominated by men. A report from the Society of Women Engineers (2006) offers these statistics:
- Women comprise 20% of engineering undergraduates vs. 55 of all undergraduates.
- From 1983 – 2002, the number of engineering degrees awarded to women has changed only gradually, from a little over 10 percent to barely over 20 percent.
The curriculum of Gadget Camp is centered around designing and constructing not robots but everyday objects including a cat feeder, a candy dispenser and various pieces of jewelry and music boxes. Antigone Sharris, an instructor in electronics, welding and computer-aided machinery, came up with the idea for the camp, in the hopes of encouraging more students to become engineers. She taught 16 girls aged 11 to 15 to use materials including foam board, wood, metal, fiberglass and PVC pipe and tools such as a band saw or a drill press. In addition to hands-on instruction in skills such as soldering, the students were also give factory tours:
During a tour of Tru-Way, which produces precision metal parts, Stan Mastalerz, the company’s president, showed the girls a tiny component used in electronic circuit boards.
Ms. Sharris jumped in. “See that?” she asked. “This is something that might be in your Game Boy that you don’t even know about. The game may be made in China, but there are pieces that are made right here in your backyard.”
The reality of factory life gave a few girls pause. Visiting Tru-Way on a scorching summer afternoon, they noted the extreme heat and noise of the shop floor.
Brittany Orr, 15, who asked questions and jotted notes, said she liked the tasks that involved some thought and analysis. But “I would not want to do a job where you just do the same thing again,” she said. “It seems tedious.”
A number of jobs — including those in digital technology and even something like teaching — do involve “doing the same thing again.” Perhaps other ways to promote careers in manufacturing are by pointing out that salaries for manufacturing positions can start at $40,000 and go up to six digits, including overtime. A Commerce Department reports that “women in such fields earn 33 percent more, on average, than women working outside of scientific and technical fields, a higher premium than men enjoy in similar occupations.”
Years and years ago, when I was offered the option of woodshop or homemaking in seventh grade, I chose the former. I felt very awkward using tools like a drill press and sanding and hammering and didn’t go further learning such skills. In retrospect, I would have liked to. There’s not only a practical value in being able to fix and make things with your hands but a huge psychological boost. It’s one thing to know how to operate a computer but what about being able to take apart your phone with a screwdriver and not only put it back together, but make something new?
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