By Molly Miller
When she was growing up in suburban Pleasant Hill, Calif., Adrienne Johnson knew she liked science and math, but she had no idea she could become an engineer. “I didn’t know what an engineer was until I got to college,” she says.
Now, having just completed her master’s in civil engineering with an emphasis on sustainable design and construction at Stanford, she is finishing up a summer engineering internship at Point Energy Innovations, a leader in zero energy building design in the Bay Area. She’s ready to launch a career as an engineer, and she’s dedicated to volunteering to advance STEM education (Science, Technology and Math).
At Stanford, she was often the only black woman in her engineering classes. “Until last year, I’d rarely seen anyone like me in any of my classes,” she says. “In most things I do I am thinking about how I can be an example for other young women or young people of color in STEM. That quote ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ really rings true to me.”
Recently, she was invited back to Pleasant Hill to address a Girl Scout troop at the home of Maria Berta, a scout leader and one of the founders of Point Energy Innovations. A former Pleasant Hill Girl Scout herself, Adrienne talked to the troop about what an engineer does, doing her best to help make science fun. During the meeting, she led the young scouts through an exercise where they could literally feel the energy losses in incandescent bulbs versus LED and compact fluorescent bulbs.
Here is an excerpt from a conversation we had on the pressures and joys of being a role model for young women of color and, she adds, for burgeoning nerds.
How did you become interested in pursuing a career in science?
One of the most influential early experiences I had with STEM was when my Girl Scout troop got to spend the night at Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. I also went to San Francisco’s Exploratorium on a school field trip. That totally blew my mind. It was my favorite field trip. Every time they said we were going on another field trip at school I thought, I hope we are going to the Exploratorium! I still remember those experiences and that is kind of why I studied math and science and eventually became an engineer…because I saw that science could be fun.
Were you surprised the girl scouts were so engaged when you talked with them about energy use? (A young scout named Arianna explained confidently that LED stands for Light Emitting Diode, and Caitlin explained how practical solar energy is. “No one could ever dry up the sun,” she said.)
I was surprised and delighted by how knowledgeable and aware the girls were. I’m excited about where public education is now, at least in Pleasant Hill. It seems to be a lot better than when I was young and they are getting exposed to science at a younger age.
I was also surprised by the ethnic diversity of Pleasant Hill’s Girls Scout Troop. When I was growing up there, I was one of only two or three black kids in my grade in elementary school.
Why is STEM education something you are interested in?
I took a class at Stanford called Expanding Engineering Limits: Culture, Gender and Diversity. We were trying to apply the concepts of Design Thinking to creating better outcomes for students and professionals in STEM. My group was interested in exposing kids to engineering at a young age, so we focused on K-6.
It’s hard to teach kids that young engineering. We knew that informal experiences—like the ones I had at the Exploratorium and Lawrence Hall — could be influential for kids that age. Our idea became having a mobile engineering museum. We wanted to focus on access, so the mobile museum actually went into schools since some schools don’t have the resources to go to places like the Exploratorium.
I took this class because I am a black woman engineer and there are very, very few of us. While pursuing my bachelor’s at Stanford I was the only black person in my engineering program, though it was about one-third women. Stanford’s student body is relatively diverse, compared to Pleasant Hill, but the faculty is 73% white and 73% male. There’s a movement at Stanford called Who’s Teaching Us? working to get Stanford to rethink hiring practices to make sure they are not closing off opportunities to other groups of people.
Do you mind that you have to represent for your race and gender in engineering?
In professional settings, I know that I am often the only representative for my race and my gender. The fear of confirming stereotypes about people like me in STEM adds some pressure.
In my professional experience I hope that I am just evaluated on my merits. But I don’t mind, especially in more informal and volunteer situations, being a role model because I would have liked to have had more, and it’s fun for me…. Social justice and equity are things I am passionate about already, and I am learning that I can use my knowledge in STEM to also address that passion.
What’s next for you?
I’ve accepted a position as an engineer at Point Energy Innovations. But first, I’ll be working as a construction manager on a volunteer project in Cape Town, South Africa. In collaboration with leaders in the community of Parkwood, a team of other Stanford women engineers, and Seattle-based Construction for Change, we will be building the Parkwood Technology Centre later this year.
What’s going to be different for the Girl Scouts of Pleasant Hill when they are where you are, say in 10 years?
I do hope they don’t have to feel that kind of pressure and I hope they will have more role models like myself or their teachers or other people they meet through formal and informal experiences with STEM. It already probably has been better for them. I am hopeful.
But I was a little disturbed by how negatively everyone felt toward the label ‘nerd.’ “I want them to know: It’s ok to be a nerd!”
Editor’s Note: You can learn more about the Parkwood Technology Centre in Cape Town and support the project here.