33: Changing More than Diapers

33: Changing More than Diapers

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Changing More than Diapers

Follow your heart, listen to your inner voice, stop caring about what others think.

~Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

The obituary in the alumni newsletter caught my eye. I was surprised to see one of my long-ago college instructors, Professor B., had passed away. I had neither seen nor thought about him for more than ten years. His photo brought back memories, none of them good.

My friend Nancy and I were in Professor B.’s engineering materials lab class in college back in the early 1980s. We were the only two young women in a class full of young men. I recalled the day when Professor B. was describing and showing new types of materials. As we passed around a new material that was designed to be highly absorbent for use in a disposable diaper, Nancy treated it like a hot potato, teasing that she didn’t want anything to do with diapers! Professor B. let her have it. “Better get used to it, young lady,” he’d proclaimed. “In ten years, you won’t be working as an engineer. You’ll be home raising children and changing diapers, as you should be.”

The room fell silent. We were all stunned. Nancy had earned the respect of everyone in the class for her abilities, and none of us thought she should be spoken to that way. We all knew she would make a fine engineer, and if she chose to be a mother, she would make a fine mother, too. Although those harsh words were directed at Nancy, I knew they were meant for me as well. The young men in the class spoke up for Nancy with heartwarming support. Along with our fellow students, Nancy and I finished the semester, completing Professor B.’s class.

Just over ten years later, Professor B. was dead. At that time, Nancy was an engineering manager at a regional power company. I was working on my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at a different university. Neither Nancy nor I had children, and we both had promising engineering careers. Professor B. had been wrong! His obituary said that he had two daughters; I wondered what kind of opportunities they’d had in life with him around to discourage them.

Twenty more years went by. I learned that Nancy had followed her passion, earning her master’s degree and becoming a green/sustainable-energy consultant. I became a mathematics and engineering professor at a women’s college. My job involved teaching and demonstrating engineering concepts to future teachers. The engineering class was hands-on, designed to enable future teachers to experience and master engineering concepts so they could, in turn, teach them to children.

I was hired midyear and worked hard to learn the material just ahead of the students. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was a required course for education majors, and many of them were only there because they had to be. Many were intimidated by math and engineering concepts. Some students even told me that they chose to teach kindergarten so they wouldn’t have to learn math! But part of the goal of the course was to get future teachers excited about math and engineering, so they in turn could pass this excitement on to their students.

My weekend class included many women in their thirties who were raising families. Some were already teaching informally and had gone back to school to earn a teaching degree. At the beginning of the semester, they arrived with their course materials and serious looks of doubt. Part of my job was to help change their attitudes.

As the semester progressed, I watched my students discover, piece by piece, that they could master engineering concepts. They had each purchased a set of pink tools for the course. They learned about and built circuits, magnets, mechanisms (including levers and linkages, gears, and pulleys), trusses, and plumbing systems. During each unit, the students worked in teams to put together the concepts they’d learned to design and build functional engineering projects. At an open house to show off their work, they taught what they had learned to their fellow students and visitors. This classroom full of women — mothers who had changed many a diaper — wowed each other and their audience by demonstrating their engineering knowledge. Even Professor B. would have been impressed by their final projects!

As I watched these women discover their own power, I saw them take what they’d learned and apply it in real life. One woman began using her pink tools to fix things around the house, something she’d never done before. She confided that she was proud of her pink tools — and glad her husband didn’t borrow them! While I’d initially thought to myself that the pink tools were kind of silly, I now understood their appeal.

A woman in my math class, after learning about compound interest and how to use the mortgage calculator on a credit-union website, refinanced her house and used the money she saved to run for the state senate. That’s empowering!

When I look back over the past thirty years, I’m proud of how far we’ve come since Professor B.’s class. Perhaps Professor B. was a product of his generation. As products of our generation, Nancy and I followed our dreams. In turn, I was excited to pass on my math and engineering knowledge to my students, who followed their dreams to become teachers of another new generation.

My students taught me something, too. When they researched women inventors, they discovered that a mother named Marion Donovan had invented the disposable diaper to reduce her laundry load! By necessity, she became the “mother” of several related inventions, and she held several patents. In an aha moment, I thought, We should have known that disposable diapers were invented by a woman. The joke has been on Professor B. all along!

~Jenny Pavlovic

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