AKRON Local students from the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM middle school and high school were given a unique opportunity to meet an inspiring innovator and academic on March 7.
Whether you spend your life on the Internet or try to avoid it whenever possible, your life has no doubt been greatly affected by the work of Radia Perlman. She is a computer scientist whose seminal work provided a hearty foundation for the Internet we know today. Her long and impressive career in breakthrough software design and network engineering earned her a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame as a 2016 inductee.
Perlman was invited back to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in North Canton and the Hall of Fame’s STEM middle school and high school in Akron to speak with students and Hall of Fame faculty, answer questions, and give insight from her life as a highly successful innovator on the forefront of her field.
The morning of March 7 Perlman was taken on a tour of the NIHF middle school by students and teachers before settling in to a room for a question-and-answer with the children. Later, she spoke at the high school then to Hall of Fame Staff in the afternoon.
"I’m so blown away, both by the school and by the incredibly cheerful, energetic and curious students," said Perlman of the middle schoolers. "Polished and adult - they’re amazing kids."
One student - seventh grader Grace McNeely - showed special interest to Perlman’s work and career and was chosen to introduce her before the Q and A session, which was broadcast live via Facebook.
Perlman spoke little about what it is like to have designed something so crucial to the Internet and widely used, how she invented it or about her current interests in software and network engineering. Instead, she spoke of the importance of critical thinking and being curious and cultivating passion. Perlman also told the audience about the insecurities she felt throughout her academic career, despite being a consistently A student and holding her Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree and Ph.D from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - how she overcame them, and why it's natural to feel that way.
"It’s very exciting. This is the next generation," said Perlman. "I enjoy communicating with all different types of people, different ages. It’s an interesting challenge: how do you speak about your field to executives? How do you talk about to other engineers? How do you speak about it to a general adult audience, and how do you speak about it to middle school kids?"
She knew her audience as her words spurred many questions from the students and faculty, to which she answered with dense and thoughtful responses.
Perlman’s talk perhaps resonated more deeply with the women and girls in the audience. The computer scientist’s visit coincided with Women’s History Month and the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s "Invent Girl Power" initiative, the goal of which is to close the gender gap for women inventors by inspiring young women to get involved with STEM education at an early age.
"Well, there’s the insecurities: realizing that everyone is insecure," said Perlman, speaking about what she wished she knew when she was the students’ age. "Something you might think you’re not suited for because you’re different from the other people in that field, might mean that you're actually incredible valuable in that field. Like for instance: who would have known, when I never showed any interest in taking things apart, that I’d be so successful and happy at engineering."