Engineering is fun: former NASA astronaut on turning dreams into careers

Former NASA astronaut Wendy B. Lawrence spoke on the Smartforce Student Summit at IMTS 2014, pointing out the importance of exposing students to STEM career opportunities while they are still in school to help them map the future.

By Joy Chang September 10, 2014

Former NASA astronaut Wendy B. Lawrence knows too well about how to turn a childhood dream into a lifetime career. Lawrence spoke on the Smartforce Student Summit at IMTS 2014 and pointed out the importance of continuing to expose students to STEM career opportunities while they are still in school.

"We need to make the connections between the seemingly boring science textbooks with the amazing job opportunities in the manufacturing industry and guide our next generation to map the future," Lawrence said.

Lawrence pointed out the "leak" in STEM education pipeline. 70% of 4th grade students say that they love math and science; however, the passion wanes as they grow older. Only 21% of 8th grade students say that they want to pursue STEM careers. To fix the "leak," Lawrence suggested showing students the stories of successful professionals and dispel the stereotypes that STEM careers are hard, boring, and usually held by men.

"Scientists and engineers don’t have green eyes and two heads, they look just like us, you and me, and their jobs are not boring. In fact, their jobs are darn fun and amazing," said Lawrence. She then showed the stories of a wood chemist, an amusement park design engineer, a robotic engineer that made robots react to surprises, and of course, her own story of becoming one of the early female astronauts.

Lawrence also showed the bright future for manufacturing: 26% of STEM jobs have higher pay than jobs in other sectors; 80% of jobs in the next decade will be related to STEM; and 90% of fastest growing jobs in the U.S. are in this field. In addition, 51% companies in the U.S. report shortage of engineering professionals.

She suggested students to start exploring their interests and personalities now and map their future accordingly. "If you are detail-oriented, you might become a chemical engineer; if you are creative, you might become a design engineer. Map your future with the goal of who you want to become, like how I mapped my future when I saw Neil Armstrong’s moon landing when I was 10," said Lawrence.

Lawrence spoke on behalf of Sally Ride Science, a company that promotes STEM careers among students, especially girls and young women. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space in 1983, started Sally Ride Science in 2001 with four colleagues. Ride died in 2012 of cancer.

– Joy Chang, digital project manager, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering, CFE Media. 

For more information about Sally Ride Science, see