As a mechanical engineer and co-host of PBS Kids Go!’s series Design Squad Nation, Judy Lee is working hard to debunk notions that engineering is hard, nerdy and only for boys.
ISSUE: Spring 2011
DEPT: My Story
STORY: Judy Lee
My parents moved to the U.S. from Taiwan more than 40 years ago. My brother and I were born and raised in North Carolina and grew up in a world with two different cultures. My parents were amazing in that they embraced American culture while remaining rooted in Taiwanese traditions. While American things — eating hamburgers and fries, believing in Santa, and pulling for college sports — were a part of our lives, so were Taiwanese things — like my mom talking too loudly on the phone as if the person on the other line were actually in Taiwan, families fighting over who would be the lucky one to pay the bill, and parents showing off their kids’ SAT scores.
Coming from an Asian family, there was always an unspoken pressure to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I was the type of kid who loved to build things outdoors — dams in creeks, forts in the woods, or mud puddles to stomp around in. I got my hands dirty in order to learn from the world. My parents didn’t think this was very ladylike, according to Taiwanese standards, but they were supportive of my interests nonetheless. Lucky for me (and for them), building things was the right track to becoming a mechanical engineer.
After working as a mechanical engineer for five years, I decided to go back to school for a master’s in industrial design. When I told my dad about my decision, he asked, “Will this make you more money?” I recall telling him, “Probably not.” He was confused. Why on earth would I go back to school if it wouldn’t help me get a bigger salary? My dad’s generation saw jobs as a means to support a family, but my generation is about doing something you love.
Today, my job as a designer and engineer allows me to pursue my passions, from designing children’s toys for IKEA to traveling to Kenya to help bring clean water to villages. Outside of work, I am constantly applying my engineering and design skills to my hobbies. Whether I’m using tools to build some- thing, figuring out how things are made, or being OK with failure, it’s all a part of how I live my life.
And now that I co-host Design Squad Nation, a new series on PBS Kids Go!, I get to travel the country with fellow engineer Adam Vollmer, helping kids make their wishes come true. We work on a wide range of projects and tie it back to engineering in ways you might not expect. My most memorable project was with two aspiring fashion designers, Juan and Eduarda, as we reinterpreted one of Christian Siriano’s gowns to combine fashion and technology. While Adam and I have the engineering chops, we really relied on their skills and expertise to make a fashionable gown. Eduarda and I created a fashion forward cocktail dress using origami to create beautiful pleats in the dress. Origami isn’t just about folding paper. There’s actually a lot of math involved to create these patterns. The pattern we used compresses and expands in three dimensions, taking a large surface area and compressing it down to a very small volume. It’s cool to see how this is applied in real life. For example, NASA uses a similar folding pattern for solar sails. Imagine trying to launch a giant sail into the sky; you’d want to make sure it’s packed as tightly as possible and still open in the right shape.
In Design Squad Nation, we show kids that with engineering, if you can dream it, you can build it. There are lots of kids out there who are talented in sports, music, art or other subjects. We’re working to show kids that if they combine those skills with science, technology, engineering and math, they can follow their dreams and create anything.
To learn more about Design Squad Nation, visit pbskids.com/designsquad.
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