Barbee breaks barriers in STEM

By Shaenna Soon

In a sea of faces at a robotics competition, hers is easily identifiable among the many males. She doesn’t quite fit with the stereotypical male engineer because, well, she isn’t a male. Emma Barbee is one of the few women on the engineering/technology team at THS.

The engineering field has a staggering lack of female participation. On the national level in 2013, only 14.8 percent of engineering jobs were filled by women according to Many of these exact same jobs hunt for female employees, but the old doctrine that only men should be in the math and science field still lingers in our society.

Luckily for Barbee, her father is an engineer and encouraged her to get involved in technology at a young age. He signed her up for a computer programming class, forced her to join the robotics team and the rest was history.

“It’s fun. It’s like a challenge that you don’t normally get in normal school because a lot of the time it’s like ‘do this thing because it’s time-consuming’ whereas in robotics it’s like ‘hey do this thing where you’re actually learning to do [stuff],’” Barbee explained.

Each year, the club is challenged to create a robot that does certain tasks for points on a game field. While completing this challenge, members are also tasked with getting involved in community outreach and recording their progress. They then compete against other schools for the most points to advance to the next round and eventually win the competition.

This year, Barbee was a finalist for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship Dean’s List Award for robotics because she organized and ran a weeklong STEM camp for girls.

“I’m a Girl Scout, so I had to suffer through the whole doing a Gold Award thing,” said Barbee jokingly. “So I did my gold award [where] I organized a STEM camp for middle school girls last summer… A bunch of people showed up. It was really fun and they all had little working robots by the end of camp; it was so cute!”

Barbee submitted this project for her Girl Scout Gold Award which is the highest achievement a Girl Scout can receive in the program. The purpose of the award is to solve a community problem. Barbee decided that problem was the lack of interest from girls in the engineering field.

“This year we had about 60 people total [on the robotics team]. There are actually more girls this year than we’ve had in a long time. I think last year there were five total,” said Barbee. “This year we had pretty much a team of girls which was really cool. So we had a little closer to 10, like eight maybe. So that was really exciting, there were three more girls than normal. It was a great experience. But there needs to be more. More females!”

15 girls out of 116 total members of the whole tech team (robotics is just a subdivision) shows the overwhelming lack of female participation in technology-based clubs. Barbee elaborated on why she believed there weren’t a lot of girls signing up for clubs like these and females in the engineering field.

“I think it’s because it’s based on the way the media portrays it and everything and the way gender roles are pushed on kids…like LEGO [products] are marketed to guys, Lincoln Logs are marketed towards guys. And like girl LEGO [products] are so ridiculously girly. You aren’t making anything cool. You’re just making another playset,” said Barbee. “Where [with] guys you’re making like spaceships and really cool stuff. So I think that’s one of the things. Just the marketing towards specific genders is so gender-based.”

Her experiences in technology classes and teams only strengthens her belief that gender stereotyping from a young age affects girls’ interest in the field. “It’s so much of a guy’s club. I showed up to my first class of computer programming, and there were five girls in the entire 30 person class…it was kind of intimidating walking in and being like ‘oh I’m the only female here.’”

According to Barbee, discrimination only seems to increase the older and more advanced girls get into the field. “I have a friend who goes to OSU and she’s a programmer. She would get in projects with guys and they would insist on checking her work, whereas they wouldn’t insist on checking their guy friend’s work,” said Barbee.

Barbee herself has faced gender stereotyping and sexism on a personal level. “…just guys being like ‘this is how you do something.’ I actually had a mentor who told me like to just go bat [my] eyelashes at them, [and I’ll] get what [I] want…That pissed me off.”

However, this won’t deter Barbee from pursuing an engineering degree and job. “I want to do something either with like aerospace engineering or biomedical engineering. And the goal eventually is to send something to space,” said Barbee with excitement.

“I think [the sexism] needs to be challenged by shoving more women through the system and showing [society] we can actually kick-butt,” said Barbee. And she has definitely “kicked butt.”

When the time came to interview a member from each team in the robotics club to see who would go on past state this year, robotics club advisor and technology teacher Steven Fulton picked Barbee since he knew she did the All-Girl’s STEM camp. She passed the interview and went on to the world championships in St. Louis, Missouri. “There [were] lots of explosions. It was awesome,” said Barbee.

Barbee has accomplished so many things in the engineering field despite adversities women and minorities face in these areas. And she is only getting started.