RALEIGH — Of all the props one might employ when striving to interest young girls in science, Laura Bottomley prefers a shoe.
The black Air Jordan with hot pink laces that she borrowed from a shocked tween at the Raleigh Girls Club this week was an apt engineering example in a room where most of the 30 assembled girls play basketball.
The circle on the bottom makes it easier to pivot, a move that often injures female players.
But the shoe trick, which Bottomley said she uses frequently, is also about making a connection - a key part of her crusade to get students jazzed about science, math and engineering, particularly girls, who so rarely choose careers in these fields.
"You start taking people's shoes away, and it's so unexpected that even the ones that are rolling their eyes start paying attention," Bottomley, who boasts a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, said. "It breaks down barriers."
Bottomley, an N.C. State University professor, has made a specialty of breaking down barriers in her 15 years leading outreach efforts for the College of Engineering. She works with children as young as elementary school, trains their teachers, and has helped form state and national education policy. Her work has earned her many honors, including a trip to the White House to receive a mentoring award.
Louis Martin-Vega, dean of the College of Engineering, said Bottomley has a unique ability to make connections between professional engineers, policymakers, educators - and, most importantly, the K-12 students who will need to fill the ever-more-technical demands of tomorrow's workplace.
"You want to create this connection that then motivates children to think about engineering in a context they may not have thought about before, and she's just great at that," he said. "She has an ability to communicate across all of these constituencies and really have an impact."
Casually jovial and upbeat, nothing ruffles Bottomley's feathers like hearing science and math bad-mouthed. She insists that the words "geek" and "nerd" turn girls away from science, and recently dashed off an angry email to the "Live! With Kelly" morning show responding to a remark that algebra is not useful. (Keeping it lighthearted, she also offered to give an on-camera algebra lesson with a "Bungee Barbie" she has used in her classes.)
Bottomley, 48, was the daughter of an engineer who worked for DuPont and an English major mother who always veered toward the scientific side. In a childhood spent moving frequently, one constant was the many science camps and programs in which her parents enrolled her.
"I was frequently the only girl, but it didn't bother me because I was interested in what we were learning," she said.
The show Star Trek planted the seed in her mind as a middle-schooler that she wanted to be an astronaut. She might have achieved that dream, having interviewed with NASA after earning her master's degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech.
Instead, she married a fellow engineer and chose a career more suited to raising a family, working at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Then she entered the academic world at N.C. State, working first as an adjunct, then part-time, and then full-time since her two children finished high school.
From the beginning, her job was to combat the ongoing gender divide in engineering - a persistent problem that is slowly improving. Nationally, about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees go to women - up from less than 10 percent in 1979 - even though women make up more than half of undergraduates, according to National Science Foundation statistics.
Over the years, her efforts moved toward younger children, and the issue gained wider currency as a national consensus gathered around the need to get more children interested in the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math.
"There's pretty much a national understanding now that if you're not reaching into the middle school level to get kids interested in these careers, you're already too late," Martin-Vega, the engineering dean, said.
Bottomley felt so strongly about early science education that she volunteered for several years at her own children's elementary school, coordinating the school's science program until it got funding to fill that position.
At the Girls Club, Bottomley was brought in to spark the girls' imaginations for a national contest in which entrants submitted designs for their own inventions. She showed off several inventions, noting their humble inspirations, from pain and inconvenience to pure luck.
She never highlights her own academic and career success, instead showing pictures of her own children and talking about her own day-to-day experiences.
"I don't want them thinking that they couldn't also do this," she said. "I want them to see me as a regular person and think that if they're regular people, they could do the same thing."
The girls sketched out inventions such as hologram phones and trash cans that dissolve trash. Event organizer Keith Poston of Time Warner Cable said Bottomley has been a great help with the company's outreach programs in science and math.
"We call on Laura when we need someone to get kids excited," Poston, Time Warner's director of communications, said.
Bottomley said her goals go beyond recruiting more engineers. She hopes even girls who don't choose a science career will see the relevance of science and math enough to try a little harder in algebra class. After leaving the event at the Girls Club, she went on to a session to help prepare engineers to volunteer in schools.
She never lacks for inspiration. Only recently, she learned a simple formula that captures the form of an electromagnetic wave. She's hoping to find an audience to share it with.
"I would venture to say that anybody could understand it if they were inclined to put the time into it," she said. "Not everybody will think that's cool, but for the ones who might think it's cool, I want to teach it to them."
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