Putting altruism into action
After Wanda Gass graduated from Rice in 1978, with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, her first stop was Duke University, where she earned her master’s. Her next stop was Texas Instruments -— where she would stay for 32 years. As she moved up the corporate ladder, she became more and more involved with what would become her passion: increasing the number of women in STEM fields, through education, access and corporate mentorship.
Today, she runs her own non-profit, Design Connect Create, which hosts STEM summer camps for young women. The idea is to expose female middle and high schoolers to the opportunities available in STEM fields, and to encourage them to take STEM classes.
“This began when I was working at Texas Instruments,” said Gass. “I was part of a group of senior female executives who created a collaborative, donor-advised fund, which drove the development of the summer camp program with the Dallas Independent School District. In addition to sponsoring the physics camp sessions for girls, we also worked closely with teachers and guidance counselors to encourage young women to take these sorts of courses in high school and consider them as majors in college.”
Founded in 2003, High-Tech High Heels began as a volunteer effort. Through her volunteer work, Gass realized that she could have an impact by helping female students find their own paths through STEM studies. That’s important for Gass, who had her own pioneering journey, both as a female engineer in the 1980s, a time when very few women were in the field, and as part of the development team that created the first commercial digital signal processor. Her leadership on that project led her to become a Texas Instruments Fellow in 1999 and to be named an IEEE Fellow in 2007.
Being a leader in one of the world’s great innovation firms gave Gass a front-row seat to see how engineering has an impact on the world. It’s part of her mantra: “If you want to change the world, be an engineer,” she tells participants in her program. “And that message resonates with young women.”
For Gass, Design Create Connect, which was founded in 2014 to expand the delivery of the physics camp program, isn’t solely about guiding women into STEM fields. It’s about providing access to classes and mentors, and about realizing that men and women think differently about engineering. “That message of changing the world for the better resonates with young women,” she said. “The social impact that engineering developments can have on everyday life speaks to the desire a lot of women have to make a difference, to be part of something for the greater good.”
That’s one reason she thinks women gravitate toward fields like bioengineering, and less toward mechanical or electrical engineering. While Gass readily admits gains have been made in women pursuing STEM careers, they are still woefully underrepresented as a demographic.
“Only 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded are to women,” she said. “Women make up barely five percent of the attendance at IEEE’s International Solid State Circuits Conference. It’s a tough nut to crack. That doesn’t mean you give up, but you have to address the problem from different directions.”
Gass approaches her work at Design Connect Create like it’s a startup, even though the program has been around for more than a decade. Under Gass’ leadership, it’s growing and expanding its reach. In 2016, eight two-week physics camps were offered throughout the state of Texas. In 2016 and 2017, the organization partnered with the Rice Office of STEM Engagement on one of its summer camps. Gass is involved with all business aspects of Design Connect Create, from marketing and budgets to fundraising and communications. The learning curve of running a nonprofit has been an exciting experience, she said.
“This is an opportunity to put altruism into action,” she said. “My goal is to help level the playing field so that girls can feel comfortable with challenging engineering and math material when they go from our summer camps back to the classroom — and beyond.”