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Sheryl Sorby

Recruiting for STEM: Getting Past Roadblocks

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Professor Sheryl Sorby tackles how to recruit women for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers while detailing her past struggles

Sheryl Sorby, PH.D., is a 2013 Fulbright Scholar Awardee, a professor of STEM Education at Ohio State University, a professor emerita of Mechanical Engineering at Michigan Tech, and previously served as the Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation. She holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering, a M.S. in Engineering Mechanics, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. And yet, she’ll be the first to tell you that the road to her degrees and current status was not a smooth one.

Ahead of the Curve – At First

As the younger sister, Dr. Sorby explained that she was forced to go along with the games her older sister wanted to play as a child; namely, school. Her sister wanted to be a teacher “from probably the moment she was born.” When Dr. Sorby began school, she found herself ahead of the other children due to all that time playing school with her elder sibling. “I always excelled at school, every subject was easy for me. Math: not a problem. Science: not a problem. English, foreign language, band, everything was very easy.” With no doubt in her capabilities, she enrolled in University to study Civil Engineering. After her first quarter resulted in all A’s, she continued on to her second quarter where her first ‘engineering course’ was held: engineering graphics. “And for the first time in my life, I had no idea what was going on.”

Later, Dr. Sorby had the opportunity to reflect on that experience as she went through the process of getting her Ph.D. When she was struggling through that class, she realized that her problem was really that she had poorly developed spatial skills. How does that translate to engineering? “Engineering careers require high levels of 3D spatial ability… they have to think about how things fit together, how things work together,” she explained.

Change Your Perspective

During her Ph.D. research, Sheryl found that the 3D spatial skills of women lag significantly behind those of men and that trend repeated itself across the world, not just in the United States. How do you combat this? Spatial skills can be learned, according to her research. Sheryl and her team developed a course “aimed at first year Engineering students to help them learn to visualize… it takes about 15-20 hours of instruction so it’s not overly difficult,” she explained.

Success in Spatial Improvement

The first visible effect that her new course had on its first group of students was “students in the class start at about 50% on [the] test, and they end up at about 80%,” according to Sheryl’s hard data results. In addition, an improvement in the students’ grades was seen across all their classes, but particularly those classes that fall under the STEM umbrella. The final hard data collected from the class showed that more of the women who went through spatial skills training were more likely to graduate from their engineering programs than those who entered with poor or even good spatial skills.

How to develop spatial skills at an early age

Dr. Sorby developed a few ideas that can help translate to good, taught spatial skills at an early age in young girls. Citing Legos and even Goldieblox as examples, Sorby also explained that sketching, studying maps and assembling furniture together with adults can help develop a young girl’s spatial skills.

By developing young girls’ spatial skills that have been proven to translate to success in STEM, Dr. Sorby hopes to tackle the issue of diversity in STEM. She explained, “we really need to have diversity in order to have creative solutions. A lack of diversity, means a lower or a lack of creativity. Engineers always work on teams… if you have a very homogenous group and they all think alike and they all come up with the same ideas, and they don’t understand… A lot of things that happen, it’s not that they’re not creative, it’s just not as creative as they can be.”

The information in this article was taken from a viewing of Dr. Sorby’s TEDx Talk at TEDxFulbrightDublin. To view her full presentation, click here.

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