2013 Women's History Feature

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Brig. Gen. Burcham’s passion for STEM is Breaking Ground and Paving the Way in the Field of Engineering
Gen Burcham

Gen. Margaret Burcham

March is National Women’s History month, a time to celebrate and honor the contributions women have made throughout time. After considering over 100 ideas and suggestions sent in by supporters, the National Women’s History Project selected “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” as the theme for this year’s celebration.

The 2013 theme honors generations of women who throughout American history have used their intelligence, imagination, sense of wonder, and tenacity to make extraordinary contributions in the fields of Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

One such woman who has a special connection to the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), is Brig. Gen. Margaret Burcham. Burcham is the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, located in Cincinnati, Oh.

Burcham holds the honor of being the first woman to be named a General Officer in the Army’s engineer ranks and the first woman to command a Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In addition to her leadership role, Burcham is also the wife of DoDEA’s Chief of Staff, Jay Burcham, and Mom to two children, Monica and John, who attended DoDEA schools in Europe.

Burcham’s interest in STEM areas began when she was very young.

“As far back as I can remember I’ve been interested in numbers,” Burcham said. “I remember way before I started school, when I would see a building I would try to reconstruct that. So from a very young age, people around me would say, you should be an engineer.”

Of course, Burcham said, she didn’t really understand what an engineer did, just that everyone thought she would be a good one.

Burcham said her Mom was extremely supportive of her interests and always told her, “The sky is the limit.”

“I love problems,” she said. “I would even have my Mom make up problems and time me on how fast I could find solutions.”

A graduate of the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point, Burcham was in one of the earliest classes to allow women as students.

Although both of Burcham’s older brothers had attended West Point, she didn’t consider it an option – because initially, she had no desire to join the Army.

“I was taking all of the math and science classes and thought I’d be an engineer but I didn’t see myself in the Army,” Burcham said. “But, I’m very ambitious. And it’s a very good school and I saw the opportunities that might open up.”

Burcham said there were ups and downs during her four years at West Point.

“There were some down days where I thought I’d like to leave,” she said. “But by the time I graduated, I knew that I wanted to be in the Army.”

Even in those early days, female students were fully integrated with the male students and Burcham was almost always the only girl student in class.

“West Point set me up for a condition where I was often the only woman in a unit and I didn’t think anything of it,” Burcham said.

While more women serve in STEM fields now than ever before, women still lag behind in choosing STEM careers in comparison to their male counterparts.

According to a U.S. News and World Report study done in 2011, only 13.4 percent of engineering professionals in the U.S. are women.

Burcham encourages parents of young girls to provide them with opportunities to see professional women in action and let them meet them and ask why they do what they do and why they like what they do.

“I think we should tell young girls that you don’t have to know what you want to be,” she said. Burcham said girls shouldn’t feel a pressure to know exactly what they want to do.

“Why?” she asked. “Why not let them learn a little more. What they need to do is to learn things that set them up to make a good decision.”

“You don’t have to end up being a scientist but STEM subjects teach you so much: how to be a good thinker; how to think and how to problem solve,” Burcham said. “Your whole life is about problem solving.”

Students attending DoDEA schools are seeing an increase in the emphasis on STEM areas.

“We want students to see mathematics and science as an essential aspect of their everyday lives, no matter what their field of study, and to think, I can understand this, I can do this, this is important to know now, for my future, and for life,” said Kim Day, Chief of DoDEA’s Science and Math Branch.

“Competence in STEM, especially proficiency in mathematics and science forms the foundation of an educated, capable, and technical future workforce,” Day said.

Burcham couldn’t agree more.

“STEM classes are a wonderful foundation for anything you want to do later,” she said, encouraging girls to take those classes and take a lot of them.

“If you don’t, it’s hard to go back and make that up,” Burcham said.

In school year 2011-2012, DoDEA offered four pilot engineering applications courses- Biotechnology Engineering, Gaming Technology Engineering, Green Technology Engineering, and Robotics.

DoDEA also launched a system-wide awareness campaign to communicate the importance of STEM education, which included developing partnerships with Federal STEM professionals to connect K-12 students and teachers with real world experiences in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

DoDEA’ s main goal for STEM education, according to Day, is to increase the number of students -- particularly those from traditionally underrepresented groups -- who are prepared for post-secondary studies and careers in STEM.

Burcham noted that her advice to boys is the same as her advice to girls interested in STEM: “Keep your options open,” she said. “Build a good foundation of learning that then allows options for when you’re old enough to know what you want to do.”

“This is what you’re going to do with your life,” Burcham said. “This is what is going to define you. It should be something you enjoy and something where you can make a contribution.”

“Do what you’re passionate about.”