Jonna Gerken is an engineering wonder woman. She’s a fellow and past president of the Society of Women Engineers and a board member with the Girl Scouts of Connecticut. In her day job, Gerken is deputy global transitions manager at Pratt & Whitney, a division of Raytheon Technologies, where she’s worked for more than 20 years.
In this month’s Leader’s Edge, Gerken shares how the Girl Scouts partnered with SWE on new badges to encourage ambitious leadership, the ways the Scouts are teaching girls and future engineers to “be prepared,” and innovating programs as families find the new normal.
– Tia Over, The Engineering 100
Girl Scouts of the USA has shown girls the excitement of STEM for decades. How will these 24 new badges that include topics like automotive engineering and STEM career exploration add to what was already available?
The new badges and journeys are exciting because they show girls all the different ways that STEM impacts their lives. They are not just learning about an abstract concept but performing real-world experiments and activities that show how STEM is everywhere. From automotive, robotics and mechanical engineering to coding, cybersecurity and space science, it’s a wide variety of areas to explore. It is the missing piece for many girls in making the connection between STEM and innovation. In fact, many corporations have supported these new STEM badges to increase the pipeline of girls into careers that they may not have previously considered. For example, my employer, Raytheon Technologies, is the sponsor of the CyberChallenge program, which highlights the importance of cybersecurity, a fairly new career path with immense potential and very exciting opportunities.
The pandemic has put the world’s focus on the need for problem solving, leadership and agility in times of change. All of these are characteristics of great engineers. But that connection isn’t often obvious for most adults, much less kids. What is the reaction when Girl Scouts first realize that link between engineering and helping people?
Kids are actually natural-born engineers. They come into the world with an immense curiosity and eagerness to learn. The earlier we encourage them to explore that curiosity – create, test, break, redesign and resolve – the longer we can retain the innovative mindset. When Girls Scouts realize that the main goal of engineering is to help people, they get motivated! Nothing makes young girls (and boys!) happier than helping someone, whether it’s making a task easier for a neighbor, making something stronger, lighter or last longer for a friend, or having an idea that will improve the health of a family member. All these are examples of engineering, and the connection is real. Ideas and inventions don’t become reality without some engineering involvement. Girl Scouts has partnered with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) over many years to strengthen this connection between engineering and leadership. Most recently, troops have been able to also be part of SWENext programming, which allows them access to activities, events and speakers using the SWE network. This is a great way to combine the best resources of each organization.
Beyond the new badges, how can being a Girl Scout help prepare young women to be the next
great engineer, STEM teacher or inventor/entrepreneur?
Being a Girl Scout helps girls thrive in five key ways. She develops a strong sense of self by knowing she is a part of the success of her troop which helps later with self-confidence in the workplace. She displays positive values learned during her tenure which will help her act ethically and responsibly. She seeks challenges and learns from setbacks during badge activities, showing perseverance and the growth mindset needed for innovation. She forms and maintains healthy relationships to become a true leader who earns respect from others. She learns to identify and solve problems in her community in true STEM fashion. All of these prepare these young women for the “real world,” which is full of challenges, opinions, diversity and unknowns.
Can you share how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted Girl Scouts programs, practically speaking? Are troops meeting online or in person? What about leadership?
Traditionally, most Girl Scout programs are held in person so the girls can work together on projects, practice leadership skills and enjoy the network of other scouts. The pandemic forced the organization to adapt quickly and realize that the core of the Girl Scouts is the relationships that are built and those can happen both in person and online. With most current girls growing up with technology, it was easy for them to pivot to virtual meetings and activities. The same leadership skills needed in a physical meeting are still needed for a virtual one. The staff at Girl Scouts was amazing in quickly creating online content, events and activities for the troops to utilize. Engagement has been great, and the organization is learning a lot about what works and what does not in this environment. The Girl Scouts are always looking for inspiring women to serve as role models for girls in Connecticut and across the country. We are looking for troop leaders, program facilitators and subject matter experts, regardless of whether you have a daughter in Girl Scouts. If you can help, please visit gsofct.org or gsusa.org to learn more.