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lab partners

Last week at Toastmasters a table topics question was: Tell a story about a time you felt out of place.

I couldn't even hear what the speaker was saying, my mind zoomed immediately back in time almost 20 years. whoosh. good thing I was not given that question.

It was the first day of school my freshman year of college. I was walking into Electronics 101. Wearing flip flops, shorts, and a blue tie-dyed tank top with spaghetti straps, long hair in a ponytail. I was cute. I loved that tank top, it was soft and the tie-dye was faded to a perfect 90s grunge.

I was in that class to get a scholarship. I'd told the college that I loved physics and computers and wanted to go into some kind of technology. At my college visit I'd talked to professors in a few departments, electronics was one of them. I told the professor I'd eventually choose some kind of technology field. A month later he called me on the phone and said, "Well if you pick electronics, we have an extra $1200 for you. It's a NASA grant. You can spend it on anything, books, room and board, doesn't matter, just have to declare your major as electronics engineering tech which is no big deal. You can switch later. You just have to take this one class first semester."

At the visit I vaguely remembered my dad asking about women in the program and the professor said, "She'll be a minority." I remember those exact words. Then he shrugged and changed the subject.

Day 1.

I walk in and the classroom has seats for about 30 people, not huge, this is a small state college. I am the only girl. The classroom has tables, each table has two chairs, I sit near the front at an empty table. More people file in. No wait, more men file in. Soon the room is filled, but nobody sits by me. They start talking. They start justifying their existence, meeting each other, talking about how they got into electronics, how they install car stereos.

I am not a minority, I am the only girl, in a class of 24. Nobody is sitting by me or talking to me. I feel stupid wearing my tank top. Why didn't I wear sweats or something utterly non-skanky, or non-girly, now it'll look like I want attention, I'm not here for attention, I promise. I start slouching in my chair. I did not know anything about car stereos. They're all going to find out.

Whenever anyone mentions feeling out of place, I remember that class.

The next day we had lab. We had to pair up, of course nobody wanted to be my partner, then a guy comes in late and I'm the only one left and he sits down. He's a business major, he tells me, just taking this class for some tech elective. There are breadboards and we're supposed to build a circuit. "Have you ever used one of these things before?" he asks me. I said no. Okay, he says, we can do this, he grabs it and starts putting in components. That's how the first few labs go, I'm just watching.

The homework and tests weren't bad. It was a lot of stuff I'd covered in math or physics from high school. The circuits drawn out were like puzzles. The professor was a terribly hard grader so my grades were not excellent but I kept remembering that this could be my last electronics class, I'd figure out some other major, just go down to general ed, they all say you can do that for a couple years.

We have the same lab partners every week but mine didn't last long, he dropped the class. The homework was too hard, he said. We had our first test. I overheard the guys comparing scores. They weren't that fantastic. I wasn't feeling brilliant but my score was one of the higher ones. Maybe I would be okay.

My scores on the lab assignments were just fine too, despite being afraid to touch anything. Then one day I realized, half the stuff these guys did in the labs was wrong. They'd fumble around with the voltmeter and put leads in the wrong places to measure drop over resistors... and I started thinking hell, how much of this have they really done?

That's when I realized two things. First, when my lab partner asked me "have you done this before?" I could have asked him the same thing, but I didn't. Another thing I've learned now, after many internet articles and SWE conferences, is that my answer could have been "No so I'd better be at the controls so I learn." or "No but I don't think that will make a difference." Engineering isn't competing with each other, it's competing with the science.

Second thing I realized: these guys were screwing up circuits on breadboards all over the place but nothing was blowing up, melting, or causing the end of the world. They were just going for it. What was stopping me from going for it? What was the worst thing that could happen if I did this wrong, I'd look stupid? A quick cost-benefit analysis made me realize it was worth the risk.

I knew I didn't have confidence, I felt that intensely. But confidence is how you learn. Maybe "technical people" aren't born with a magical inside knowledge, they're just willing to dive in and find some starting point.

I had no lab partner. I grabbed a breadboard and stuck leads and resistors in the little holes to match the circuit I'd pre-designed. I was determined to look extra confident to make up for my feelings of inadequacy, because there was something about confidence that seemed to play into this. If I was smart, and confidence was the only difference between me and all those guys, I could make up for that.

Another student came up to me, and said his partner had dropped the class too, can we team up? I said sure.

He looked at my lab notes and nodded and said "Finally... it'll be nice to have somebody who knows what they're doing."

The class dwindled to 16 by the end of the semester. In four years, I would graduate with 12 people in that small electronics program. Somewhere along the way we got another girl who transferred in. We ended up being friends and partnered together for senior design.

It was a groundbreaking year that had never happened before: two of us.

Good thing I stayed.

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( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 22nd, 2017 04:26 pm (UTC)
You should publish that. I think I would have been more likely to take science in college if I had read something like that.
Mar. 22nd, 2017 04:56 pm (UTC)
That story is amazing. Can I link to it?
Mar. 22nd, 2017 10:27 pm (UTC)
sure, always.
Mar. 22nd, 2017 05:31 pm (UTC)
"Maybe "technical people" aren't born with a magical inside knowledge, they're just willing to dive in and find some starting point."

Definitely. I wrote a semi-similar blog post about fear of failure and programming: http://lepid0ptera.livejournal.com/89072.html I think it might explain part of the gender gap, which if it does, there's an easy solution- teach it in schools. But basically the gist is, these are skills that aren't taught in schools, and therefore it acts like a filter for people who are scared to try new things, only letting through the people who are less fearful of failure.
Mar. 22nd, 2017 07:08 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you stayed.
Mar. 22nd, 2017 07:51 pm (UTC)
I love that.

(and yes, I had to take a break when I had to solder the first components to my circuit board, I was so afraid I would break something, so I know how you felt)
Mar. 23rd, 2017 01:30 am (UTC)
I have the biggest grin on my face right now. You shared some lessons I still have troubles remembering, and I don't work in tech, and have been working forever.
Mar. 23rd, 2017 05:30 am (UTC)
>they're just willing to dive in and find some starting point.

I feel like this is the tragic heroism of engineers: they are almost always willing to assume they can do things and wade right in. Usually they're (okay, we're) right, when the subject is technical, but when the subject isn't technical it gets a lot more exciting.
Mar. 23rd, 2017 09:49 am (UTC)
I really liked this. I've not done any scientific work since I was sixteen, but I remember liking how much of experiments was just about being willing to do it and seeing what happened.
Mar. 23rd, 2017 09:05 pm (UTC)
I was the only girl in my electronics class in high school.
Mar. 25th, 2017 03:39 am (UTC)
Wow! Your story gave me goosebumps. Go adolescent you! FanSee
Mar. 25th, 2017 04:16 am (UTC)
Awesome post... I think it should be required reading for HS students.
Mar. 25th, 2017 11:35 pm (UTC)
Can I submit this entry to Autostraddle? I'm sure the folk there would appreciate it. ^_^

Was that class your introduction to electronics? (I do hope that doesn't sound confrontational - it's just I fell into electronics at quite an early age, so my experience is probably not going to be like most others'. Suffice to say, I made it into my teens with only a few solder flecks in my eye and one scorch mark on the carpet. Not sure how my parents explained that one to the agent when selling the place =:)
Mar. 30th, 2017 12:30 pm (UTC)
This was a really powerful thing to read. I've been mildly interested in coding for years, but the combination of growing up in a super-technophobic family and just never being encouraged to pursue it meant that it's only now in my early 20s that I'm really finding my feet and really starting to learn. I've always avoided situations and setting where I could learn or find others with common interests for exactly the same reasons you described here. Finding out that these experiences are more common than I assume is extremely encouraging, thank you so much for sharing.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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