Tamara Robertson is leading a fun and dynamic hydraulic lift building activity for pre-college students at Invent It. Build It. on Saturday, October 28, in Los Angeles during WE23.
Save your spot and get ready for an exciting day of teamwork and hands-on STEM demonstrations hosted by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE)!
Check out Tamara’s episode of Superhero Science where she talks about the science behind the energy manipulation powers of Carrie Kelley (aka Robin from Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns graphic novels).
We sat down with Tamara to discuss her passion for engaging young women in STEM, her time as a MythBuster, and what students in the Los Angeles area can expect at the Invent It. Build It. event.
Welcome, Tamara! How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be an engineer? What did that entry point look like for you?
I grew up a tinkerer, rebuilding houses and engines with my dad, but I was not aware of engineering as a career option until I was a sophomore in college.
I started out a history major, and, by mid-sophomore year, I had several minors to try to keep myself challenged in school. One day, my calculus teacher took me aside and asked why I wasn’t an engineer. I remember laughing and telling her that I didn’t think women did that — the only engineer I had seen was Scotty from “Star Trek” on TV.
She noted that women could, in fact, become engineers, and she took me to North Carolina State University for their pre-engineering program to sit in on some courses. For the first time, I felt engaged in a classroom and excited to learn.
After that trip, I went back to campus, changed my degree track to engineering, and never looked back.
You went on to enjoy an incredibly successful engineering career and then transitioned to primarily outreach. You have been involved in numerous projects to promote and encourage girls and women in STEM, from comic books to TV shows to podcasts and TV shows. What made you decide to make that shift?
Early in my engineering career, a manager dropped a Forbes “30 Under 30” magazine issue on my desk and told me that I could achieve that. From that day forward, I had the goal of climbing the corporate ladder to reach that “30 Under 30” status.
At 28, I found myself reporting to the CEO of a chemical company in Texas to launch a global division using their technology in consumer product goods. At that point, I looked down the corporate ladder to train future female managers, and I found there were no other women in leadership within the company.
I started reading the research on where we were losing women in engineering career paths, and I realized it was a pipeline issue that started in grade school and continued through managerial roles in corporate America.
In 2015, I chose to take a package and walk away from the firm to invest my time in solving the pipeline leaks ― one level at a time ― to try to get more women into STEM career pathways.
You have been a co-host and fabricator on the iconic show MythBusters, along with its reboot MythBusters Jr.! What surprised you the most about your experience as a MythBuster?
When I started on MythBusters, my goal was to showcase that women could be equally capable in a shop setting. I met young women and little girls from all over who thanked me for being inspiring on the show.
But when the mothers of young boys and the mothers of my male MythBusters Jr. co-hosts thanked me, I had a realization ― the impact I was having on young men may have been even more important than the impact on young women!
I learned that my role in MythBusters made it easier for young men to normalize having female peers working with them in the shop. This experience changed my entire view of what it will take to achieve gender equality in STEM and shop environments.
If you could go back and give a piece of career advice to your 15-year-old self, what would you tell her?
I would tell her to never put down her tools. I allowed the peer pressures of a small town to drive me away from the shop and the trades I loved and push me to be a closet builder for over a decade before I was brave enough to embrace the tools I loved to work with as a child.
Had I continued my passion without that decade break, I could be light years beyond where I am today.
You’re one of the leads of the Invent It: Build It (IIBI) program at the WE23 conference in Los Angeles in October. Can you tell us more about the event and what students will be doing there?
At IIBI, students will build hydraulic lifting systems (similar to scissor lifts), and we will have a load capacity competition to see whose device can lift the most weight. This is similar to an activity I have done on the set of MythBusters Jr.!
We will have segmented times for design, testing, and iteration with their smaller hydraulic lifts. Then the students will work together to figure out how to strengthen and supersize their lift capabilities with their existing systems and teammates.
The event will use a self-assessment and peer review model where we celebrate the designs and iterative process the students go through. They will share learnings from their individual and smaller group builds with each other to in the end hopefully build the strongest lift they can by working together.
The students will have an earlier assembly with Jay and Diana Flores where they will make some new acquaintances in the audience. Once in the room with me, they’ll do a Q&A with their mentor and meet each other before starting our fun hydraulic lift activities.
What skills and experiences do you hope that students at IIBI walk away with?
I am hoping that students leave IIBI with the ability to fully embrace failure with the realization that it is merely iterative design which is part of the engineering process. Without failure and moving beyond our comfort zone into the unknown, we have no ability to advance our knowledge and evolve new technologies.
We need this next generation to become excited and efficient about failure in STEM, so that they can help us find the cures and design the technologies we need.
How do events like IIBI instill confidence and interest in the next generation of STEM leaders?
Events like IIBI give the next generation of STEM leaders a network of like-minded individuals in their age group that they can talk to during and after the event. Peer mentorship like this is extremely important when trying to go through the STEM pipeline, to counteract bullying, and to build STEM groups.
At IIBI, students are given a safe space to learn, try, fail and evolve while working with mentors in STEM fields that understand their current paths. This helps them build the soft skills they need, while also giving them stepwise mentors to guide the future steps in their career pathways.
If a student is reading this and is on the fence about joining you at IIBI, what would you tell her?
It’s an event where they’ll get to meet like-minded girls who are excited by the way the world around them works just like they are! They will learn to build structures they see around them every day.
Students will leave with a group of friends and mentors who will help them learn soft skills. like interpersonal communication, overcoming failure and giving constructive feedback, while also teaching hard skills, like how to design and build infrastructure, how to use hydraulics and how to iterate on designs.