Inspired at a young age, Deanne Bell knew she wanted to be creative and to invent. She studied architecture and mechanical engineering, and then worked as an aerospace engineer. As a co-host of PBS’s "Design Squad" she shares her expertise and enthusiasm for invention, and hopes to inspire others, particularly girls, in the field of engineering.
"Prototype Online: Inventive Voices" is a production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Written and hosted by Paul Rosenthal. Audio production by Benjamin Bloom. Theme music by Will Eastman. Art Molella, executive producer. Deanne Bell was originally interviewed on 3 May 2007 by Paul Rosenthal; podcast released 5 June 2007.
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Paul Rosenthal: From the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, welcome to Prototype Online: Inventive Voices. We're coming to you from the National Museum of American History in Washington. I'm Paul Rosenthal.
If you go to Google, and search on the phrase "Girls Engineering Careers," the results probably would not surprise you. "Why Girls Don't Consider Engineering Careers." "Guiding Women Into Engineering Careers." "Commonly Held Myths That Often Discourage Girls from Pursuing Engineering Careers." These are just some of the results that you'll find there. Here's another one. "The Ohio State University Women in Engineering Program is hosting the First Annual in Engineering Career Day for Girls." So, again, are these results surprising? Probably not, and frankly I do find it quite encouraging to see that the need to get girls and young women to consider careers in engineering has not only been identified, but there are lots of individuals and organizations who are trying to do something about it.
In fact, just for the fun of it, if you try Googling "Boys Engineering Careers, " many of the results are identical. It's about guiding women toward careers in engineering. So clearly, there is minimal need for support services for boys interested in engineering careers.
Now, if you listened to our last podcast, you would have heard from inventor and engineer Nate Ball, who is in his mid-twenties and just won the Lemelson MIT Program Student Prize for Invention. Here is Nate, at the beginning of a bright career in invention, and already he's looking at the generation that's following him by being a mentor and role model for younger students. One way he does this is through his role as co-host of the PBS program, "Design Squad."
In each episode of "Design Squad, " a group of high school students work in teams to tackle a real life engineering challenge. They confront a problem, identify possible solutions, and build prototypes to see if it works. They are limited only by their own imagination and creativity. Well, there's also a time limit, and they don't have an unlimited budget, but it's mostly their own imagination and creativity. One of the goals of the program is to change and improve the public image of engineering; and if the search results from Google show anything, that is an especially important step in getting more girls to follow that career path. Which is one of the reasons why the program's other co-host, Deanne Bell, got involved.
Deanne, who grew up in Florida, is one of those girls who managed to ignore or clear any hurdles that appeared down this particular career path. Knowing that she wanted to be creative and wanted to design, she studied mechanical engineering and architecture. This led her to a R and D job in the aerospace industry, creating optical navigation equipment, including a night vision system for helicopters. Deanne knows first hand the challenges girls face in following careers in engineering, as well as the challenges the engineering field faces in getting girls to have interest. With this new role hosting "Design Squad, " Deanne has a great platform to do something about it.
Deanne Bell: Well, I, when I was young, actually got involved in some creative problem solving competitions with a team, and I think that teamwork was really critical. I loved, after school, getting together and building solutions to these problems. In particular, we built a lot of mechanical solutions. So, when I was younger I built all these gadgets in my backyard, from a musical washing machine to a hands-free hair washing machine and a mail delivery and sorting system. They were all very whimsical machines, and it was fun just to tinker and really go through the design process. I built lots of things that didn't work, and then realized how to build things that do work. After I did that... I did that from elementary school through high school, and it kind of just sold me on the fact that I loved to design, and I liked to build things and invent.
Paul: It's funny that you're putting it as creating and building, because some of the folks that I've talked to, as well, about what got them into it is they liked to take things apart and see how they worked. It's almost like the opposite that... Do you take things apart, too? Does that...
Deanne: Oh, I take apart. Actually, some people used to make fun of me because I had a motor collection that I was very attached to. I actually took it to college with me. I had a box of motors. I used to go to the thrift store and get old broken down VCRs and old equipment, and take them apart, and salvage the motors, because who knows when you need a motor? Who knows when you need one of varying torque or speed. So, yeah. I would take things apart all the time, just to really tinker at them, and see how they work. Sometimes I put them back together, too. [laughs]
Paul: So how did you end up then, now with this TV show?
Deanne: That's actually a pretty crazy story. I was working aerospace out in California, and I decided that I wanted to go travel. I wanted... I am very passionate about learning about other cultures, and I left. I took a leave of absence to go travel in Asia for about six months. I was in the Phillippines and thought that I really want to get back into my career. I started looking, and I saw a posting online for a PBS show. They were looking for a mechanical engineering host, and I knew instantly, "That's for me." The next day I flew all the way across the planet and showed up for a first-time audition. Thankfully, they liked me; so after a month, I ended up getting signed on to be the host.
Paul: Let me ask you then, how busy does that keep you? It's a fascinating job, and I want to talk more about the role that you play now in encouraging young people to get involved in this. But, for your own personal interest in building things that you've always talked about, do you get the opportunity to still do that?
Deanne: My role as a host on the show is as a mentor, but we're hands-off in the sense that we really let the students and the participants on the show build for themselves. Because I know, and Nate, my co-host, also knows that that's critical to where we are today. That when we were younger, we built everything. We went through that design process. So our role on the show is to present the challenges, to come on and advise them on their design process, to help them take what they're aiming toward and help them refine their focus and really come up with a successful solution.
It's funny. Because we are not hands-on so much in building their devices, we end up in the back actually building our own little gadgets. In one episode, the kids were tasked to build a water pump for a water slide, to go from a pool all the way to the top of a water slide. We were like, "Well, we need to build water guns!" So, we just started cutting away at PVC and building our own water guns back in the back; and everyone on the show was like, "You guys are crazy! You're always building!" [laughs] So yeah, we had our fun building, as well.
Paul: Persistence at it is probably one of those characteristics that's not going to go away from you, just because it's the students who are building. I see that. Well, no surprise: the number of girls who are getting involved in this. I think there are so many organizations, people, and groups that are looking and trying to find ways to inspire girls, in particular, to get involved in science, engineering, technology, invention. What are the challenges that you see to that, and what are some of the possible solutions and suggestions that you could make?
Deanne: I think there's a couple of challenges. One, in general, it's just a stereotype. It's a new generation; and women are equally as capable of being inventors, and being successful inventors. Unfortunately, when we grow up, we still get that stereotype of an engineer as a guy with a pocket protector. That image is changing. To further illustrate what I'm talking about, look at media today. Look at people -- images -- that you see up on the TV, role models in science. We need to basically work to balance that so that people will get images of women in science and women inventors. I think it's also explaining to people that engineering isn't just necessarily math and science. There's a lot of creativity; there's also a lot of a human element to it. You can design machines that help Third World developing nations; you can design biomedical equipment used in the medical industry. It's not just robots. Teaching people that there's very broad applications of science--
Paul: There's artistry! There's artistry to it.
Deanne: Artistry...kinetic sculpture, functional fashion. That's a great thing that "Design Squad" does with the challenges that they have on the show. They really try to show the wide variety of applications that you can have within engineering. Even in my career: I'm an engineer and I now host a television show; that's another application of it. It's just a matter of realizing that a degree in engineering, and in science, is a problem-solving degree. The entire rest of your life you're going to be encountering problems; and if you are given the tools to be able to solve those problems, you're going to be able to succeed.
Paul: Tell me what some girls may have said to you. Some of these girls who you work with, who are younger than you, who are getting involved in some of this now, what have they said to you? What kinds of stories have you heard from them about their involvement in this now-- the fact that they're getting attracted to this field?
Deanne: I've been fairly impressed, even with my experience on "Design Squad." I think at that age, it's still an age where there isn't as much of a hindrance. If a girl wants to go into science, it's embraced and nurtured. It's more, I think, when you transition into university and industry, where it's harder to really continue through with that implementation. That's my personal opinion, at least.
I'll give an example from "Design Squad." We had one episode where it was a fashion challenge. The teams were tasked to design fashion for a runway, and it had to transform on the runway. We split the teams up into all girls and all guys for that challenge. It was very interesting to see the dynamic of the girls working together. They just communicated so well; they worked very well together as a team, very supportive, and all the ideas were open. They were just lit up at the idea that engineering and fashion could go together; they had just never really associated the two before. They were like, "This is fun! This is what I enjoy doing!" To me, just seeing that and seeing that lightbulb click on, and to realize that girls can, all of a sudden, acknowledge that engineering could be something that they want to do, is invaluable.
Paul: I'm not saying I'm not wishing for a very long and successful run for "Design Squad," but tell me what comes next for you? Where are you going to go next in your career?
Deanne: Actually, we only filmed over the summer; so over the last five months I have been working out here for a startup company. I work in software development. I'm actually more of a product tester and I work with customers. It's been a really interesting experience working in a startup environment because you're given a lot of roles, a lot of responsibility. You really get challenged for that whole problem-solving aspect of the engineering degree, because there's many problems of a variety -- a big spectrum -- to solve. So that's what I'm doing right now; I'm kind of on that venture. But the whole experience with "Design Squad" -- I guess the reason that I got involved in "Design Squad" was my experience living in Los Angeles. Seeing the need for more role models of women in the media has made me really passionate about that, and I hope to be able to be involved in the future, in whatever aspects I can, to work with youth. To work with girls, in particular, to encourage them to go into science.
Paul: That's Deanne Bell, co-host of the PBS program "Design Squad." I met up with her when she was participating in an event at the Museum of Science in Boston. That's one of the many public steps Deanne is taking to bring change to the image of engineering. If you can catch the "Design Squad" program on PBS, watch an episode. I think you'll agree that the imagery Deanne, Nate, and the program participants present about engineering show a really bright future for the field.
Thanks for listening to "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices." Brought to you from the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History. I'm Paul Rosenthal. We're anxious to hear your thoughts about this program, or any others from the Lemelson Center. Send us an email. The address is LemCen@si.edu. Learn more about us on the web at invention.smithsonian.org. We'll be back again soon with more insight into the great inventors and innovators of the 20th and 21st centuries.