As Batteries Keep Catching Fire, U.S. Safety Agency Prepares For Change

Picture this: You’re at a park, on a walk, with a baby. A friendly middle-aged man approaches you and tells you your stroller could be really dangerous.

You might think this man is crazy. But maybe not if you knew he’s the nation’s product safety chief.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I walked away and it turned out that that child was harmed when I could’ve just said something,” Elliot Kaye says. His voice is soft-spoken and his worldview seems to fluctuate between pride in saving lives and the unease of someone who has seen many things go wrong in unexpected ways. “You can’t help it; you just automatically see the hazards.”

Kaye is the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It’s an agency that indeed typically gets the spotlight when things go wrong — when furniture topplesover toddlers, when window blinds strangle children, or, more recently, when smartphones explode.

And to many, the CPSC is the recall agency. But considering how tiny it is, its mission is vast. With the exception of cars, food, medications and a few other things, for thousands of products we buy and assume someone’s made sure are safe — cribs, lawn mowers, toasters, power tools, washing machines, office chairs — that someone is the CPSC.

A major category under CPSC’s scrutiny is electronics. And increasingly in recent years, there’s been the matter of batteries. They’ve overheated or caught fire in laptops, baby monitors, flashlights and, of course, those electric “hoverboard” scooters and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phones.

Lithium-ion batteries are a known troublemaker — and a subject of numerous standards and international regulations. But the incidents keep cropping up.

“This is the way standards normally work,” Kaye says. “They identify a problem that is probably not a problem that needs to be solved in the future, and they’re really good at making sure that thing never happens again, but then new problems have developed.”

In October, Kaye introduced a new initiative to help the agency get a broader understanding of the battery industry and how to prevent rather than resolve hazards.

But then came the election and its unexpected result. Under President Donald Trump in 2017, Kaye is expected to step down as chairman to become a commissioner. “My hope is now with the election and potential leadership change here, that that work is not scuttled,” Kaye says.

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Study: Inclusive Environment Key to Closing STEM Gap

In order to tighten the gender gap in certain male-dominated science, technology, engineering and math fields, educators must develop a more inviting culture, according to a study published in the October issue of Psychological Bulletin.

The study, “Why Are Some STEM Fields More Gender Balanced Than Others?” draws on previous works on STEM gender gaps to account for the specific gap in computer science, engineering and physics fields.

The study’s authors, University of Washington’s Sapna Cheryan, Lily Jiang and Sianna Ziegler and Ohio State’s Amanda Montoya, knew that more boys preferred these fields than girls, but wanted to understand why. Previous research, they say, tried to write the gender gap off as individual preferences and abilities, factors they found to be insignificant.

While the number of women in biology, chemistry and math have increased in recent years, the gap has widened in computer science and persists in engineering and physics fields. Echoed by the 2016 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, the research reveals that the academic culture of these fields is more masculine, which deters high school girls from enrolling in the often-optional courses.

An overwhelmingly masculine environment is one that conveys a stronger sense of belonging for males and increases the interest, participation and performance of boys to the detriment of girls, according to Cheryan.

Erin Stewartson, 17, a senior at Takoma Academy in Silver Spring, Md., was honored at Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day in the nation’s capital Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. – ALAN NEUHAUSER FOR USN&WR

The study defines masculine culture as an environment that fosters “stereotypes of the field that are incompatible with the way that many women see themselves, negative stereotypes and perceived bias, and few role models for women.”

The stereotypical image of a computer scientist, engineer or physicist doesn’t line up with how many girls see themselves or their interests, the report says. These factors contribute to why women and girls don’t feel comfortable in some STEM fields.

Cheryan says when she was in high school in the 1990s, a friend warned her that a mandatory computer science class was extremely difficult and that only boys who were gamers and coded for fun were successful in the course.

“We already had strong stereotypes of computer scientists being those boys – I guess now you’d call them hackers – the stereotype that they like science fiction and are a little socially awkward,” she says. “There was nothing that made us girls feel like we were welcome. Many of us got As in the class, but many of the girls said they didn’t feel like there was a place for us in that field.”

When Cheryan returned for a 20-year high school reunion, she noticed that of her small class, about half of the men worked in computer science, but only one of the women did.

“We’re still using science, we’re just not doing it in the fields that are the most lucrative and most high status,” she said. “But if you can be a doctor, you can be a computer scientist.”

While the gender gap in STEM has received more attention in recent years, the “boys’ club” image of many of the fields still exists. In 1984, 37 percent of computer science majors were women, but by 2014 that number had dropped to 18 percent, according to a recent study from Accenture and Girls Who Code. To combat the decline, educators must encourage girls to pursue computer science in middle and high school, according to the study.

TechGirlz, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing the gender gap in technology fields, focuses specifically on fostering middle school girls’ interest in the sector. Founder Tracey Welson-Rossman says the environment is often less welcoming for girls and isn’t tailored to meet their interests. Girls become more interested when they feel a sense of community and have female role models in the technology sphere, she says.

“The anecdotal actually does match up to what research is showing,” Welson-Rossman says. “One, there’s not a lot of classes [available], two, it’s not interesting to the girls, the way that it’s being taught. And we hear this again and again and again that it’s boring, that they’re the only girls in the class.”

According to Cheryan, pop culture jokes and classroom decorations have an affect on who is interested in a course. The study reveals that when high school classrooms were either decorated with “Star Trek” posters and video games or not decorated at all, girls were less interested than boys in taking the course. Girls’ interest only matched boys’ when posters of art and nature replace what the study calls “geeky” decor, but boys’ interest was not negatively impacted by the classroom environment.

Cheryan and her team also had computer science majors present themselves in a stereotypically “nerdy” way, wearing “I code therefore I am” shirts and referencing a science TV show and then again wearing plain clothes and referencing “The Office.” Girls expressed more interest in computer science upon their interactions with the non-stereotypical coder.

That isn’t to say all girls are turned off by “geek culture,” or that all boys are attracted to it. Balancing traditionally masculine and feminine decorations and references simply helps narrow the gap between the genders and promote a more inclusive environment, the study found.

“It’s not that every man and every woman can relate to the stereotype,” Cheryan says. “And it’s not that the stereotype is bad; there are just more women who think, ‘It’s just not me and it doesn’t reflect my values and my interests.'”

Welson-Rossman says the actual coursework in technology classes needs to change to better fit girls’ interests as well. Girls prefer learning about technology to solve real-world problems rather than more general, theory-based learning about technology.

TechGirlz runs free workshops aimed at broadening girls’ views of technology. Workshop instructors complete hands-on projects with middle school-age girls and show them how technology can be applied to nearly every profession. After each session, Welson-Rossman says about 80 percent of attendees say they are more open to pursuing a career in technology.

“How are we getting them interested in the get-go and how are we retaining that interest?” Welson-Rossman says. “We believe if we keep presenting it the way it’s being presented in the schools, that it’s just not going to be how they want to learn. We want to ignite a love of technology in these middle school girls.”

At the University of Washington, the computer science department has tried to create a more gender-inclusive environment over the last 10 years and has seen a boost in the number of women earning computer science degrees. In 2013, 29 percent of those degrees were granted to women – almost twice the national average.

Other factors that contribute to the gender gap in computer science, engineering and physics are the insufficient early experience provided to girls in middle and high school, the lack of role models and a difference in self-efficacy between men and women.

“Really what I’m trying to do is not say we need to kick the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ boys out or make them do worse,” Cheryan says. “We need to broaden the image of the field, and make it more accessible, and say you can be that or you can interested in art or something else.”

Originally published at US News & World Report. Contributed by Gabby Galvin.

FALL 2016

Verbs mean action and that’s exactly what engineers are about – they are makers, problem solvers, doers, movers and thinkers. This fall, we’re looking at several of the ways we engineer better – and sometimes more entertaining – lives. From a legacy of fun and creative genius that captures the imaginations of future engineers, to bringing some reality to Hollywood blockbusters and women who inspire success in tech careers, engineer is most definitely a verb!

SPRING 2016

Last month’s National Engineering Forum (NEF) dialogue in Greenville, South Carolina, completed the regional dialogue series, and set the stage for the future. Nineteen dialogues with hundreds of leaders from Seattle to Orlando and New York to Los Angeles, and engineering hubs around the nation, have provided a wealth of ideas across several common themes. What often arises as one of the greatest needs is a voice for engineering, to advance the 3C’s conversation toward solutions and to bring recognition to the role of engineering in technological advances, medicine, climate change, cyber security, and every aspect of keeping our nation prosperous and secure

FEBRUARY 2016

South Carolina’s engineering leaders set to discuss 3C’s solutions

Clemson University hosts the National Engineering Forum’s final regional dialogue in Greenville, South Carolina, on Wednesday, Feb. 18. The dialogue will feature keynoter Keith Young, director of Composites Technology, The Boeing Company, who will give a regional perspective on the 3C’s, followed by a moderated panel discussion among Clark Gillespy, president, Duke Energy South Carolina; Kurt Goodwin, general manager, Advanced Manufacturing Works, GE Power & Water; and David Stafford, executive vice president of Human Resources Michelin North America

JANUARY 2016

Oklahoma State University and university President Burns Hargis are hosting the first National Engineering Forum (NEF) regional dialogue of the year. On February 2, OSU will be the gathering spot for leaders in business, industry and academia who are driven to create solutions to the challenges facing the American engineering enterprise

DECEMBER 2015

The National Engineering Forum (NEF) will start up the new year with the focus on the 3C’s in two new regions.

In 2012, Lockheed Martin launched NEF in partnership with the Council on Competitiveness and the National Academy of Engineering, which share a common vision for transforming the way we perceive, experience and prioritize American engineering. Now, Oklahoma State University and Clemson University will help kick off 2016 by joining the list of NEF regional dialogue hosts