Meet Saura Naderi, a 32-year-old career development specialist at Qualcom’s Thinkabit Lab. Naderi spends much of her time working with youth, helping them cultivate a passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM. With and engineering degree from UC San Diego under her belt, Naderi makes it her mission to challenge and inspire kids to believe in themselves through hands-on activities and robotic crafty creations. And because STEM is assumed to be a male-dominated field, she makes it a point to encourage girls and helps them realize their potential to create anything imaginable with technology. Overall, Naderi is a trailblazer in the realm of all things STEM and she’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Chispa had the chance to sit down with Naderi to discuss her passion for engineering, teaching, her sources of inspiration and plans for the future.So, sit back and take a little time getting to know the STEM fanatic, Saura Naderi.
You established the myLab Program in 2009 with the mission of garnering passion for engineering through the combination of art, engineering, and technology. When did you first realize you had a passion for engineering? Is there anyone in particular who inspired you, and how? I would consider myself a curious person in general and an engineer at heart. I love learning about the inner workings of systems and building new things with that knowledge. With that said, I didn’t know what exactly an engineering path was until I transferred to UC San Diego as an engineering major. It was in college when I realized my love for engineering… from the environment and people, to empowerment and demystification of computer systems. My only gripe is that I wish I knew the platform that engineering provided sooner, so I would have taken my high school education more seriously and maybe engaged in activities that would have better prepared me, and given me more foundation for my college education.
My approach to teaching engineering is to provide an environment where students feel comfortable to explore technology at their own pace. I had an art teacher in high school, Fred Marinello, who provided a similar environment where I felt like I could never go wrong, as long as I was trying to figure out SOMETHING. I think allowing people of all ages a safe space to innovate is imperative to foster a creative environment.
You are now the Career Development Specialist for Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab where you challenge students to think through hands-on projects. What is your favorite project to have the students work on? Have they taught you anything new in the process? My experience has only reaffirmed what I truly believe of people… that fundamentally we are all capable of achieving what we are interested in. Unfortunately, many people cut themselves short of opportunities because they may have been conditioned to think they are not capable of achieving a particular task. I have seen 2,000 kids come through the Thinkabit Lab from all possible backgrounds, and I personally taught every single one. We have built 1,000 robotic crafty creations with (and I’m underestimating) at least 95% success rate.
One thing that, in my opinion, makes one of the biggest differences is the space that we provide in which we relate to each of these students as great minds perfectly capable of achieving anything they want. That’s what comes across when they present their robotic crafty creations to their peers, which by the way is my favorite part! They had just finished spending about an hour taking over the lab and now they are able to share what they just worked on. I love hearing them express how their views of engineering changed… they went from thinking it was a dry subject matter to something that can truly empower them with the tools necessary to manifest what’s in their imagination.
There’s a common misconception that the STEM field isn’t for women or that young girls don’t find technology interesting. In your experience, what has been the most difficult part about encouraging girls to give STEM a chance? Are they as eager to participate in the hands-on activities as the boys?The beauty of STEM fields is that by nature the “black box” is gender neutral and culturally independent. As long as the system works as intended, the object does not depend on who created it and users won’t know the difference either (not speaking about design and/or gender specific technology). I can’t speak to why STEM became associated with men, but I find that when I socialize STEM subject matters with women in a context that allows them to define its purpose (usually achieved through art), they are just as eager to play in this realm too. The most difficult part (and this doesn’t happen often) is convincing women to give themselves a chance to learn and believe that they are smart enough to accomplish a specific STEM-associated task. I remember working with this one undergraduate female who was so nervous about how she was filtering this particular signal that she didn’t want to show me the algorithms she was using. She insisted I show her an example first. After I showed her my example and she finally revealed her work, she had blown my example away and was totally on the ball with her logic. She just insisted that she didn’t know. I think I spent more time giving her advice about confidence rather than how to integrate math into her code.
As a woman in a male-dominated field, are you ever concerned that you’re intimidating to others? Has anyone ever discriminated against you or treated you differently on the job because you’re a woman? During my professional career at Qualcomm, I don’t think I have been treated different in my job because I’m a woman; however, I did experience some challenges during my college years. I naively thought that it didn’t really happen, that no one was REALLY going to discriminate against me because I’m a woman. It was near the end of my undergraduate studies, when I finally got a female mentor that I realized some of the way I was being treated was because I am a woman. When I heard that she would experience the same things I would, it was at that moment that I realized that not all my negative experiences were a result of my incompetence, but due to the fact that I’m a woman and my voice was not always heard. It was very frustrating and hurtful.
I must say that to a certain extent, I don’t think that the majority of men and women (yes, I do think the discrimination can come from both genders) do it on purpose. Many times the discrimination is unconscious, and whoever is on the other side tends to assume that it is a reflection of their own abilities… and that is one of the problems. My saving grace, and this is something I always tell my students, is that I never gave up on myself and truly believed that with enough practice I could be a good engineer. If I gave up every time I failed, I wouldn’t be here now. From time to time, I still struggle with coming off too strong, but I’ve learned how to use it more effectively.
What is your definition of feminism? My definition of feminism is giving options to women. I believe men have also been freed to more options as well. What frustrates me is when people find traditional gender roles to be demeaning to that gender. The best thing about this country is our declaration of independence and the ability for our citizens to pursue happiness without defining the meaning of the word. In my mind, it’s silly to tell someone else how they should live their life. If someone wants to be a stay-at-home parent, male or female, then that is awesome; just as awesome as if both parents want to pursue their career, if a woman only wanted to wear pink dresses for her whole life, or if a man wanted to wear pink dresses his whole life. I mean, feminism is just one more slice of human liberation, our society has a way to go to really achieve and embody the “pursuit of happiness” and allowing people to live and let live.
Coming up with new and creative ways to teach STEM can be at difficult at times. Do you ever run out of ideas? If so, what helps to get your creative juices flowing again? To be honest, I don’t think I run out of ideas very easily… I can ideate all day long, every day; I’m actually more scared of not following through than coming up with a new idea. I love imagining myself as a kid and trying to come up with ideas that would get them excited first, and then I add the engineering.
What is the one thing you want students to walk away with after participating in the Thinkabit Lab Program? What steps do you take to begin cultivating a love for science and technology in children? I want kids to believe in themselves. One of the best feelings is dispelling any misconceptions of what STEM is. They often times come in thinking it’s dry, and leave realizing that it really is just another tool, like having colored pencils instead of just one pencil, to create. We infuse a love of technology by allowing them to define what it means to them, allowing them to create what they want, and allowing them to play as they do it, all by using the arts.
Another cool aspect of Qualcomm’s Thinkabit experience is that they get a better understanding of the world of work, as their day starts out with activities that give them awareness of the different types of jobs needed to support an engineering company like Qualcomm. If they can also take away an idea of different career options, which education paths they need to follow, and what they can expect when they start working, that’s also a great achievement after their visit.
When you’re not busy working on STEM-related things, what’s your favorite way to unwind? Do you watch TV? Pig out with a pint of your favorite ice cream? Or maybe enjoy a cup of tea? I sleep a lot. If I can, and sometimes do, I sleep 10 hours a day. Sometimes I get ideas in my dreams. I also love to dance! I can do a pretty awesome robot dance. 😛
As a child, what were your favorite toys to play with? Did you ever build your own Barbie DreamHouse out of Legos? I loved collecting toy horses and imagined they were real. Now I build animated stuffed animals, so I guess I made that little dream come true. I had a Teddy Ruxpin growing up, and wondered how his mouth appeared to be moving with the sounds. I didn’t build anything with legos. We had a computer and my brother dominated it, but when he would leave I’d figure out ways to get in and mess everything up – I LOVED doing that!
Your Twitter handle is @RobotSaura. Explain your fascination with robots. Could there be a RobotSaura action figure in the works? Hah, I wish! I wonder what that would look like. I love the idea that we [humans] can create a machine that runs tasks for us. The idea that a robot can facilitate our lives and possibly be the solution or means to world peace is awesome!!!!
You’re an engineer, entrepreneur, educator, and mentor. You’ve even guest starred on a show for the SyFy Network. You’ve pretty much done it all. Is there anything you haven’t done that you would like to do? What can we expect next from Saura Naderi? I’d love to take the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab live on TV. That would be rad; think cooking show but robotic crafts. I think people would love to build crafty robotics. I also want to write a book, a movie script, build an art installation. I want to create how-to dance videos. I want to empower people. I don’t know what to expect, I never expected any of this to happen. I just got my engineering degree, worked hard, never gave up, and suddenly the world opened up all these opportunities for me.
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