When Grace Kim was in middle school, she had no desire to be an engineer. Instead, she wanted to be an artist, or maybe a librarian.
Her reasoning was two-fold: Her father, an engineer for Honeywell, was often gone for work. She resented that, she said.
“I didn’t see him very often,” she said. “So, I felt very distanced from him during that time and toward engineering.”
The other reason was that, she subconsciously believed girls couldn’t be engineers. Boys are good at math, and sports. Girls aren’t.
Now, the 18-year-old Central Valley High School student wants to be an aerospace engineer, or a biochemical engineer – both with an eye toward becoming an astronaut. The change? She’s attended the Honeywell Leadership Challenge Academy, also known as space camp, the past two years.
To be clear, Kim didn’t, and doesn’t, have a bad relationship with her dad. In fact, the more interested she’s become in engineering, the closer they’ve grown.
“He is my best friend and a mentor in STEM I look up to,” she said in a text message.
Kim’s subconscious belief that girls can’t work in the sciences isn’t unique. Overall, women constitute 50 percent of the country’s workforce, but only 28 percent of the STEM workforce, according to an August study conducted by the National Girls Collaborative Project. In engineering fields the disparity is even greater. In 2016, only 19 percent of all engineering bachelor degrees were earned by women.
The Honeywell Leadership Academy Challenge partners with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and aims to give students leadership skills in science, technology, engineering and math. Kim was one of 320 students from 45 countries and 27 states at this year’s challenge, in Huntsville, Alabama.
The application process is competitive, however it’s only open to the children of Honeywell Employees.
Because it was her second year at the camp, Kim had a different role than she did her first time. She was an ambassador, and charged with helping the new students succeed.
That was a good experience for Kim, who describes herself as introverted and soft-spoken.
Kim, whose parents immigrated from South Korea, said she was bullied in grade school. Some students taunted her, asking if she was from North Korea. Those experiences, she said, made her shy, and sometimes afraid to speak up.
At space camp this year not speaking wasn’t an option.
“It has boosted up my confidence in myself for what I can offer a team,” she said.
During the weeklong camp participants got to experience weightlessness simulations, rocket launch simulations and moon walk simulations. However, the primary focus of the camp is building leadership and communication skills.
Kim, like many of the students at space camp, has a busy life. In addition to school she is a member of Central Valley’s chamber orchestra, volunteers at Spokane’s Korean language school and takes extracurricular biomedical classes. The week “in space” was a well-deserved break from those obligations.
“One of the best things about these programs is they’re giving them a week off from their everyday lives,” Kim said.
As for her artistic ambitions, Kim hasn’t forgotten them. She said realized STEM can be combined with more artistic pursuits after watching a TED Talk about bionics.
“Being able to see math, and then art and science all combined, I thought that was so cool,” she said, adding later, “Seeing it all come together, I found that intriguing and challenging.”
Kim wasn’t the only Spokane student to attend the camp. Fellow Central Valley High School student Sara Jane Lynn also went.
“It was a really cool experience because I got to learn about different aspects of aerospace engineering and chemical engineering,” she said.
Lynn, a junior, said she has been interested in chemical engineering for the past two years. However, attending the camp inspired her even more. A talk given by Capt. Robert L. Gibson, a retired astronaut, inspired her to try and be an astronaut as well.
Additionally, Lynn said she was able to experience microgravity simulations, which she called “extremely fun” as well as G-force simulations. She hopes to follow in Kim’s footsteps and be an ambassador for the camp next year.
“There was just so much that I got to do, it was incredible,” she said.