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Author and researcher Amanda Sullivan and her son, Sidney. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Sullivan)

As a young girl, Amanda Sullivan never met any female engineers or scientists. She was never encouraged to pursue a hobby or club around STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“In my upbringing, STEM had both an implicit and explicit air of masculinity around it, both at school and at home,” Sullivan said. “I made up for this lost time in college and grad school where I learned I could solder, assemble robots, and code.”

Amanda Sullivan’s new book on STEM and girls. (Rowman & Littlefield)

Since then, Sullivan has devoted her research and educational career to developing playful, creative, and hands-on ways to engage girls in STEM, particularly in the technical STEM fields of engineering and computer science where women are the least represented. The author of a new book called “Breaking the STEM Stereotype: Reaching Girls in Early Childhood” is our latest Geek of the Week.

Sullivan considers herself somewhat of a Pacific Northwest native. She lived in Kirkland, Wash., throughout her teenage years before moving to the East Coast for college and work.

“I received my Master’s and Ph.D. in Child Development at Tufts University where I focused on designing and evaluating educational technologies for young children,” Sullivan said. “My research focuses on using new technologies, like robotics and coding applications, to boost girls’ interest and confidence in STEM. In my research and writing I explore how young children develop potentially harmful gender stereotypes toward technical STEM fields and what adults (parents, educators, caregivers) can and should be doing about it.”

Sullivan recently moved back to Washington after over a decade living in various cities back east and currently resides in Lacey with her husband, 1 1/2-year-old son and a cat who thinks he’s dog. She does her writing and research science work from home.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Amanda Sullivan:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I’m a mom, a researcher, an educator, and writer in the field of educational technology and STEM education for young children. I am the co-creator of the ScratchJr Coding Cards (No Starch Press) and author of the new book “Breaking the STEM Stereotype: Reaching Girls in Early Childhood” (Rowman & Littlefield) now available for pre-order.

Now that I am a mom, my mission is even more clear. I want other moms to know they don’t need to be scientists or “techies” to be able to model positive attitudes toward STEM for their children. There are so many fun, simple, hands-on (and screen-free!) ways to get started with exploring technology and engineering at home, even with kids as young as 4! But moreover, there are simple ways that adults can demonstrate their own curiosity, ability to troubleshoot, and willingness to fail that can set kids up for success with STEM. That’s why I wrote my book. I wanted to reach beyond the academics who read research papers and instead reach the parents / teachers / babysitters / grandparents / etc. who actually have the power to make a positive impact on kids.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? I think a lot of people might be surprised to know how big the gender divide still is in the technical STEM fields. Women still make up only 13 percent of engineers and about 26 percent of computer scientists.

There also seems to be a misconception that the most critical time to reach female students with STEM programs or interventions is in high school. And yes, this is an important time to support female students because the choices students make around AP courses and college applications can directly impact career opportunities down the line. But in some cases, adolescent interventions come way too late. Beginning in early childhood, children are forming ideas about what they are good at and what they enjoy. They are developing gender stereotypes about hobbies and professions that are impacted by what they see in the media and all around them. They are observing which parent likes playing with LEGOs with them or which parent builds all the furniture. They are paying attention to all the little things adults say and do.

Early experiences are critical to success later in life. We need to expose girls to quality STEM content as they are growing up and exploring their identities and interests. While they are still gaining confidence in their abilities and still deciding what they are “good at” and what they enjoy. By modeling gender equality and positive attitudes and reaching all children beginning in early childhood, we will provide them with equal opportunities to pursue the hobbies, passions, and careers they are interested in further down the line.

Where do you find your inspiration? These days all my inspiration comes from my 19-month old son, Sidney. He reminds me to view the world with a playful curiosity and to approach obstacles with bravery. And he also reminds me that although my work has been focused on engaging girls in STEM, it is also critical for young boys to grow up seeing girls and women succeeding and thriving in STEM! With all the focus on girls, we can’t forget we want to shape the experiences young boys have too, so that they also grow up without stereotyped views of women’s abilities.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My phone! Living in Washington again after 10+ years living on the East Coast means the majority of my professional and personal contacts are not in the same city let alone same time zone as me. Thank goodness for Google Hangouts and Facetime!

Amanda Sullivan finds a space to work at home while caring for her son when he was younger. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Sullivan)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I work from home so my workspace is anywhere I can find some quiet in my house. This is a picture of how I worked all of last year when my son was still a little guy. I would “babywear” him in a carrier, and stand and do work at the kitchen counter while he slept on me. (In this picture I’m working on the ScratchJr Coding Cards which I co-created and released last year.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Managing work life balance is so tricky, especially for us working moms! For me, I’ve discovered I love working from home and it gives me a real sense of balance. Also, leaving my “9-5” university job to focus on research, online teaching, and writing works for me. It allows me flexibility to work on projects that are important while not sacrificing time away from my son during his precious early childhood years. I can get so much done during my son’s naps, on weekends when he’s spending one-on-one time with my husband, and at night after he goes to bed.

But I think work-from-home parents need to know it’s OK to ask for help. I REFUSED to get a babysitter until my son was almost 1, despite working nearly full time AND writing my book. (I took a 2-week maternity leave that I rationalized by saying I was “just” working from home). That was INSANE and I basically had to stop sleeping to make it work. My son now has an amazing babysitter who watches him when I have conference calls or just need to get uninterrupted work done and she is a godsend for my sanity and work-life balance.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Capt. Janeway all the way! My brother and I were obsessed with “Voyager” when we were growing up and memorized almost every episode. Now we try to force our non-Trekkie spouses to watch with us every time the family is all together.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I would create a national chain of STEAM centers for early childhood and early elementary students to come play, code, invent, build, and more! Maybe something like Einstein’s Workshop meets the Computer Clubhouse with a focus on early childhood and play? I’d want these centers to also specifically host events and programs for girls and other groups that are underrepresented in STEM.

I once waited in line for … “pay your age day” at Build-a-Bear Workshop when my son was not quite 1. I really wanted us to get a Build-a-Bear for $1! Sadly they ran out of merchandise and sent us away with just a coupon before we ever got into the store. #momfail

Your role models: My greatest role model is Prof. Marina Umaschi Bers, the director of the DevTech Research Group at Tufts University and chair of the Department of Child Study & Human Development at Tufts. I was beyond lucky to study and work with her at Tufts and see how her brilliant mind works when it comes to technology, education, and innovation. But moreover, she taught me what it meant to care about your students, to balance family and motherhood with professional aspirations, and to have confidence in yourself (because if you don’t, why should anyone else?).

Greatest game in history: My favorite board game of all time is “Lords of Waterdeep.” My husband and I used to play it all the time. My favorite board game of recent times is “Illimat.” Favorite board game for kids is “Robot Turtles.”

Best gadget ever: iRobot Roomba vacuum and mop.

First computer: Dell laptop I got right before going away to college.

Current phone: Google Pixel 3.

Favorite app: ScratchJr, a free app for teaching coding to young kids. It’s an introductory programming language that enables children ages 5-7 to create their own interactive stories and games. Children snap together graphical programming blocks to make characters move, jump, dance, and sing.

Favorite cause: Equity for girls and women in STEM (equity for girls and women in general, actually).

Most important technology of 2019: The innovation I’ve been most interested in following over the past year has been lab-grown meat. As a longtime vegetarian (18 years now) I’ve been really fascinated with this. To my understanding, lab-grown meat involves extracting muscle tissue from animals and growing it in bioreactors with a final product that supposedly looks similar to real meat. Not sure if they figured out the taste or mass production angle yet? Either way, it’s exciting to me that the wider public is beginning to care about finding alternatives to the unethical treatment of animals raised for food as well as reducing the environmental costs of meat production.

Most important technology of 2021: I’m guessing we’ll see more exciting and innovative things happening with IoT (Internet of Things) technology within and outside of our increasingly “smart” homes. Maybe more worries and debates about privacy and security will come along with this … .

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Moms can be geeks, too! Don’t let dad steal all the fun using Legos, building robots, and flying drones with your little ones. There’s lots of fun and easy ways to get started becoming a #STEMmom and a #geekmom.

Website: Dr. Amanda Alzena Sullivan, Ph.D.

Twitter: @AASully

LinkedIn: Amanda Sullivan

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