Women In Comms

A Man, a Mission & an Underwater Flashlight

Chris Luke wants to shine a light on the lack of women in tech -- an underwater flashlight, to be specific.

That's why the Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) network engineer, along with his wife and tech-savvy ten-year-old daughter, have started a program to encourage young girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers in part by creating a flashlight out of $10 worth of parts.

Luke's daughter Piper has always shown a predilection towards electronics and tinkering, although that could be because her mom teaches robotics and marine biology at the collegiate level and her dad is deep in the weeds of SDN and NFV as the lead architect at Comcast.

Recognizing that Piper is typically the only girl in her computer science classes and that she thinks she's bad at math despite being in the gifted program, Luke has made it a personal mission of his to show other young girls that engineering is cool and worth pursuing. (See WiC Poll: Start Young to Improve the Pipeline.)

Piper Luke and another camper create an underwater flashlight, soldering together components, during Tech Trek's camp in New Jersey.
Piper Luke and another camper create an underwater flashlight, soldering together components, during Tech Trek's camp in New Jersey.

"It's something where I've always thought that equality for women in their careers is an important thing, but it's not been a primary focus, and then I had a daughter, and she's smart and interested in things I do and things her mom does," Luke says. "She's her own person. It occurred to me I have to do what I can to make sure there aren't obstacles in the way to do what she wants to get done."

By obstacles, Luke doesn't anticipate his daughter being overtly denied opportunities or told she can't pursue a technical role, but rather more covert discouragement akin to what happens when women don't see any other females in the room. (See More Women in Tech Is Critically Important.)

Within the engineering department at Comcast, another particularly homogenous group, Luke's goal is to hire more women. He says he wants to make diversity a priority by making it normal. His message to young girls like his daughter is to have tenacity and don't get discouraged by any apparent discrimination, whether it's blatant or unconscious.

"My fear is that sometime down the road, she'll have all the qualifications and requirements, but knowing some of the older people in the industry, you look around the world and think it's not a picture of diversity," he says. "Some of it is self-selection and some of it is innate stuff. How do we fix it? Chipping away at it one person at a time. If she's persistent, it will work out, but there are obstacles."

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This desire to chip away at the problem one person at a time brings us back to the underwater flashlights. Luke, his wife and Piper helped out at a week-long AAUW Tech Trek program at Stockton University in New Jersey last summer to encourage girls in the field of STEM. They provided electronic boards, PVC tube and soldering equipment and taught the girls how to use engineering to make it all fit together and work underwater. About 100 kids came through the course, and most -- if not all -- left with a working flashlight. Luke says he plans to repeat the program this summer.

"If she's determined, she will get where she wants to go," Luke says of his daughter and her generation. "There are these not-so obvious obstacles -- just 'not getting selected' obstacles that are difficult to overcome. I don't want them to disarm her. I want her to persist if that's the direction she wants to go."

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Director, Women in Comms

kq4ym 4/11/2016 | 12:41:52 PM
Re: awesome project A nice program. But, I wonder if creativity and practicality might be a subject to be included in such efforts. A "flashlight out of $10 worth of parts" seems a bit of wasted money even if it can be waterproof? Remided me of the kid in the news a while back with his digital clock project that cause the bomb scare at school. Why build a clock when you can buy one for a dollar. I'd think there's better projects that could be more creative if not practical at the same time.
TeleWRTRLiz 3/31/2016 | 11:29:35 AM
Re: awesome project It's a national program and more schools in the area are starting to offer it. Definitely something to challenge high schools and middle schools to start in your area.
TeleWRTRLiz 3/31/2016 | 11:27:15 AM
Re: rockets During my five week class, I noticed that the girls were the MOST engaged and took planning out meals very seriously -- their astronauts would have been well fed and cared for especially when it came to pancakes!
Sarah Thomas 3/31/2016 | 11:19:51 AM
Re: awesome project Wow, a four-year engineering program at the high school level?! That is impressive!
Sarah Thomas 3/31/2016 | 11:17:21 AM
Re: rockets Thanks, Liz! Sounds like an awesome program and so cool that you're working specifically with the Girl Scouts too. Have you had a good mix of boys and girls interested in NASA? Any gender dynamics emerging early?
TeleWRTRLiz 3/31/2016 | 10:13:48 AM
Re: awesome project This is a great project and so encouraging that there are projects like this now for kiddos! For so long, I had to really search to find camps and classes for my kids who were born tinkerers and builders. Now, my older son is in a four year engineering program at his high school called Project Lead the Way and loving every minute. We also did six years of Camp Invention when they were younger. Two good options for you to look for your kids if they are interested in STEM! 
TeleWRTRLiz 3/31/2016 | 9:57:59 AM
Re: rockets Hey Sarah! Actually, being a Solar System Ambassador for the JPL is going really great! I just finished up a five week class was based on the NASA and Texas Instruments Mission Imagination challenge for middle school and high school kids (cool prizes by the way!) -- however I simplified it for younger kids in grades 1-5.

To kick off the class we talked about how food is important to them here on Earth, and how food plays a role in family gatherings and celebrations and how sharing a meal with friends and family is important and memorable. Kids shared their memories of their favorite foods and how those foods helped them think of family members -- for example, grandma's coffee cake, dad's pancakes, Thanksgiving turkey, etc. -- and be together together with friends and families. We talked about food as part of holidays and festivals, too.

Next we talked about what it would be like to be an astronaut headed to Mars and gone for three years from friends and family, how they would feel during that time (scared, lonely, excited, tired). We discussed what's involved in getting to Mars and then watched the video for Mission Imagination Challenge 1: "What's for Dinner" to get our "assignment" from "Mission Control" in Houston. Our goal was to figure out what food we'd send with the astronauts to not only keep them healthy in body but also in mind and spirit as they traveled through space for three years -- away from everything and everyone they know.

We shared our meal plans with each other (healthy food and bonus food) and finished up by watching the video from ISS "Eating on the Space Station" to see what its like to eat in space, the shared table on the ISS, the "bonus" foods the astronauts can bring along and what its like to eat in space. If we finished on time, the kids got to watch another video "Space Potty" and/or "Washing your hair in space," which they loved. All in all, a great time was had. 

If you have older kids, check out the Mission Imagination Challenge! There are four challenges in all and you can win a chat with a NASA expert and lots of TI goodies. Deadline to enter is May 3 so best hurry up. 

Next up, I'm working with a local girl scout troop this month and we'll be doing Challenge 3 -- designing the interior of the module that will be used to get the astronauts to Mars. I'm excited to see what they come up with!

If you run a scout troop and are interesting something similar, look for an Ambassador near you. There are 700 of us in the US.

Sarah Thomas 3/31/2016 | 9:41:38 AM
rockets My dad and I always built rockets when I was young. I didn't make it into NASA, but I loved learning how to do it, the hands-on aspect and, of course, shooting them off. 

Liz, I'd love to hear more about how your volunteering with NASA is going! There's one program that has done well at recruiting women!
Sarah Thomas 3/31/2016 | 9:39:57 AM
awesome project It's great that Piper's school has computer science and fun programs available like this. I don't think we had it available when I was young, but it's becoming more popular/common. Obama is trying to mandate it for all schools too. Tangible ways to make engineering fun are great for kids.

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