The 0.6 Percent: Destenie Nock, Engineer and International Volunteer

The 0.6 Percent: Destenie Nock, Engineer and International Volunteer

Only 0.6% of engineers in the US are African American women. That’s approximately one in every 31,000 people in the nation, according to a 2013 report from the National Science Foundation on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. And this statistic isn’t changing anytime soon: over the last decade, we’ve seen a 22% decrease in the number of African American women graduating with bachelors degrees in engineering. Meanwhile, among the entire population, degrees in engineering have increased a healthy 31% in the same amount of time. This is the story of one woman in that 0.6%.

You may assume that a child born to an engineer and technology enthusiast was destined to be involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), but Destenie Nock fell in love with numbers by choice. Unlike other fields of study, Nock was drawn to mathematics because of its resolute quality. “There are right and wrong answers – nothing between.”

Nock originally planned to be a high school math teacher. Yet, it was her high school physics instructor who suggested that she could help numerous amounts of people by pursuing a degree in engineering.

Upon arriving at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (North Carolina A&T), Nock ran between departments and campus buildings to gather all paperwork and permissions necessary to become a double major in electrical engineering and mathematics education, a non-typical undergraduate degree at her university. The legwork was worth it: “I wanted to put myself in a position to help the younger generation,” Nock says of her tenacity.

After a semester of student teaching math in a local school, Nock began to reconsider the words of her high school physics instructor. The teaching experiences left her feeling less fulfilled than expected. “Before you can find yourself and figure out what you want to do in life, you have to get lost,” reflects Nock. With only a couple classes remaining to finish her math education major, she changed her course of study – and course of her life – by switching to be an applied mathematics major.

In the midst of this transition, Nock stumbled upon an international volunteer project in Malawi, thanks to a professor, Dr. Tom Smith. Over a month abroad, Nock would have the opportunity to set up indoor and outdoor math teaching tools, such as a painted runway with numbers, for Malawian teachers. The once-in-a-lifetime trip came with the shocking price tag of $8,000. To afford the experience, Nock took on a third campus job and applied to numerous academic scholarships. Although affording the opportunity was exhausting, “it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Nock says.

Prior to her trip, Nock secured donated supplies, ranging from pencils to feminine products for the Malawian schools. However, Nock and her trip’s advisor, Dr. Liz Barber, realized that no volume of donated feminine supplies would ever meet the need of the Malawian communities. This shortage meant that girls would continue to miss school on account of their menstrual cycles. With that, Nock was on a new mission.

After some research, she discovered Africa Pads, an organization that designs and produces sanitary cloth pads that can be washed and reused. After confirming with the Malawian primary school teachers that they would benefit from these pads, Nock modified an online pattern and started gathering materials for the project. Nock flew to Malawi to teach her assigned community about mathematics and how to make their own reusable sanitary pads. Dr. Barber dubbed these pads ‘DestinyPads’ because of their potential to allow Malawian girls to have a greater, brighter destiny. According to the latest news from the village, teachers report that girls are attending school more regularly and a greater percentage of them are now passing their final exams.

While in Malawi, Nock also saw first-hand how a lack of reliable energy systems negatively impacts children’s access to education. Because of limited electricity and lighting, both school and children’s chores, such as tending cattle, must be done during daylight hours. “I have often stayed up past midnight studying for an exam, but many of the students I worked with in Malawi do not have this luxury,” Nock reflects. Working with the students at Domasi Primary School opened Nock’s eyes to the needs of the global community. “The power grid infrastructure needs substantial improvement and expansion.” Nock recognized her ability to be a change agent as an engineer. “Engineering is about the solution. Engineering is a way to help people.” And for Nock, helping people has been engrained in her ever since her early days as a Girl Scout.

Her future plans revolve around bringing sustainable energy systems to developing countries. Most recently, she was awarded the George J. Mitchell Scholarship, a Scholarship I received a few years ago that has become so prestigious that many are choosing it over the Rhodes. With the Mitchell, Nock will attend Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland to pursue an MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development. Following her year abroad, she’ll return to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in Industrial Systems Engineering and Operations Research at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Nock recommends budding engineers and mathematicians to complete as many math courses as possible in high school. “Talk to your math teacher, graduates of your high school, and college students. “Find that mentor,” encourages Nock. Discovering the ‘right fit’ for a university is also crucial. “Focus on your studies – and don’t be intimidated by the boys,” Nock says, obviously with some experience.

In her spare time, she enjoys practicing yoga, making jewelry, playing tennis, and traveling; her car has over 215,000 miles on it from exploring the United States.

As Nock forges ahead, she isn’t shy to state: “I want to take every stereotype and blow it out of the water.”

To receive the DestinyPad template and instructions to make reusable pads, please e-mail Destenie at destenienock5@gmail.com.

The original version of this story appeared on Under The Microscope, a website funded by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

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