Stories of Strangers

Sonia Ellis’ Young Adult Novels Inspire a Future of Women in STEM

From her laptop screen, author Sonia Ellis’ second novel TimeTilter gently illuminates her breezy pale green kitchen. Several years ago, the former chemical engineer made a radical career change to write young adult novels that aim to engage underrepresented youth with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts.

“It was a little easier to write the first book because it was a younger audience. This book is targeted to a more sophisticated 6th to 8th grade audience so I had to be more aware about how to present these topics in a way that was engaging and not in any way lecturing,” said Ellis, who scrapped two or three 100-page false starts from the novel’s conception in 2014.

Her first book, a young adult mystery novel titled Talk To Me, introduced principles of artificial intelligence, engineering design and engineering ethics to children as early as fourth grade.

The second novel, TimeTilter, incorporates elements of bioengineering, the principles of biomimicry, construction, sustainability and explores the outer limits of what engineering can achieve. Importantly, the novel is written from a feminist approach to interest middle schoolers, a critical period as research shows middle school to be the age most girls lose confidence in their ability to pursue STEM.

The 53-year-old mother of two works with a team of professors, students, artists, videographers, and educators from Smith College and Springfield Technical Community College on the Through My Window project, funded by a grant the National Science Foundation. TimeTilter, the second and final book produced under the grant, will appear in print and online this fall.

Ellis says the traditional method of coating STEM concepts in pink and glitter simply does not work. What does work? Engaging narrative and strong female role models.

The author received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1986, where she received numerous honors for academic achievement.  She received her master’s degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University in 1988.

“Why I made the change in career is the story behind why we are doing this project at all. I was one of the lucky ones. My dad was a chemical engineer. He and my mom were so supportive to my older sister and me that we could absolutely become engineers. We both went on to get advanced degrees in engineering,” Ellis said.

Ultimately however, she made the personal choice to forgo her doctorate in chemical engineering to shift her focus to writing instead.

“When I looked around myself at my class what did I see? I didn’t see female faces among the students or the faculty. It wasn’t just about being female in a male dominated world. It wasn’t just community, it was tied in with identity… I didn’t feel like I had the stereotypical identity of an engineer. The reality is, engineering is a gigantic world. You can do so many different things if you’re a creative person, if you’re good at communication and teamwork or you are a writer like me, there are different ways you can use your skills to be a really good engineer,” Ellis said animatedly, pushing her long brown bangs away from her kind eyes as she spoke with a smile.

Her office is located down the hallway from her cozy kitchen, nestled in an annex off her small den. The office is the nicest room in the house with a skylight and sliding glass doors leading to a fenced back yard where the many dogs that pass through the house run wild. Natural light spills through the large panes of glass to illuminate the soft gray walls. There are two desks painted with a dusty blue lacquer purchased from Ezra’s Mercantile in downtown Westfield, Mass. Between the desks, low bookshelves cram in front of an exposed brick wall while by the window sits a black futon covered in dog hair.

Ellis doesn’t spend any time writing in her office, although she might be found there singing, playing the ukulele, or photographing small objects from interesting angles. Her clean desk is desk drawers are well organized, the pens separated from the pencils in white drawer organizers that remain mostly undisturbed. Ellis finds her creative energy when she is on the move—in the car, on a walk, or pacing around the house. She is of medium build, with dark eyes and dark hair contrasting a light complexion. Her affinity for long, colorful skirts reveals a lean towards artistic pursuits. Her two dogs, a golden retriever named Chase and an Australian cattle dog named Bleu as well as her housemate’s gentle mutt Tripoli are happy for the long walks spent in creative contemplation.

“I can’t sit and be creative. Every single breakthrough I’ve had on this book when I’ve been stuck and need to move forward has been on a car ride, on a walk, or in the shower,” Ellis said.

In the past, her shower has housed a waterproof pad of paper and a pencil in case inspiration strikes.

TimeTilter follows the story of a 16-year-old girl named Singer, born with a disability from a perinatal stroke. She never feels valued or loved in her home where it is clear her parents value perfection above all else. When one of the family’s agility golden retrievers becomes injured, her parents decide to abandon the dog. This prompts Singer to embark on a rescue mission as she sees her own imperfections mirrored in her canine friend.

This is when she is kidnapped and thrown into the TimeTilter, a scientific experiment on human perception’s limitations of time and sight. Children chosen for experimentation are homeless or runaways, like Singer, who will not be missed. Part of Singer’s growth is coming to understand her own value and her own sense of worth as she uses communication and teamwork—the fundamentals of STEM—to escape.

In March, the project team heads to the Girls Inc. National Training headquarters in Indianapolis. Ellis, Through My Window principal investigator Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, and project outreach coordinator Isabel Huff will deliver a presentation to Girls Inc affiliates and other educators interested in implementing the program at sites around the country.

Huff has been involved with the project for seven years since she was an undergraduate at Smith College. She was in a similar outreach program as a middle schooler and said she is excited to work on the other end.

“There is not a lot of people doing what we’re doing,” Huff said, joking that Talk To Me is the Harry Potter of STEM literature for its ability to capture the imagination of a younger generation.

“We have relatable, emotionally engaging characters. The students are asking questions and engaging as if they are characters in the story. The book shows that engineering is about helping people in society,” Huff said of why narrative helps girls generate interest in STEM.

This approach to engineering is approachable to young boys as well, as teachers implement Through My Window in co-ed classrooms. Ellis said she was sure to create strong, complex male characters for young boys to relate to.

While K-12 education sees girls score on par with their male counterparts in mathematics and science, as students move towards higher education, the gap widens. While women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological, they receive only 17.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, 19.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and 39 percent of physical science bachelor’s degrees according to the NSF’s Women, Minorities, and People with Disabilities in Science and Engineering (2015).

Through My Window instructional designer and middle school science educator Lauren Binger says that statistics often paint a more equal picture than reality reflects. Many statistics factor healthcare into the biological sciences offshoot of STEM, which skews the data as women are highly represented as nurses.

“Women tend to be in lower paid positions in STEM,” Huff agreed.

As the NSF funding comes to an end, Ellis says she feels hopeful and passionate about this women-led effort to empower the next generation of women as they choose career paths. Talk To Me has been developed into learning curriculum, an audio book, interactive games, as well as translated to Spanish.

“Are kids right now engaged? Is there a growing number of teachers using this program? Yes. In the field, Through My Window appears to be working,” said Ellis.

Her kind eyes light up as she describes how proud she is to be part of a community that empowers women.

“Through My Window has truly emotional meetings. There are lots of women in the room with amazing, creative ideas who feel so passionate about the work they do. It’s nice to be a part of something you care about,” Ellis said.

In the future, Ellis plans to continue publishing young adult novels and education materials.

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