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Women in the Workplace / Judith Love Cohen : Engineering a Change : A Hubble telescope designer aims to rewrite the book on careers for girls with a series of stories about women in math and science.

September 06, 1999

The couple have built their lives around the company, using vacations to drive to book events, schools and publishing conventions. In their cramped warehouse office, each brims with ideas and worries about small details, such as how the plastic kits for the botanist book--which includes a shovel and zinnia seeds--could get frozen shut this winter in shipments around the country.

Katz got the idea for the books from his work teaching fourth-grade students in South-Central Los Angeles. He could not believe what he heard when he asked girls what they wanted to do when they grew up.

"I was kind of shocked because they came up with what I think of as stereotypical answers," he said. "The girls would say, 'Teaching. Nursing. Secretary.' "

He came home and told Cohen, who thought back to her days in Brooklyn, before she got bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering at USC. No one had ever encouraged her to pursue science, and five decades later, it seemed as if girls were not even thinking about careers as engineers or scientists.

She remembered how lonely she felt as a top math student in elementary school. The other girls thought about parties and the cheerleading squad. Her mind was a jumble of Xs and Ys: How fast was that corn pouring out of the silo? How long would it take those men to unload the bricks?

Cohen wanted to tell schoolgirls her story, how she felt different because she liked to figure out math and science equations. With Katz's help, she wrote her story, and the couple printed and stapled copies of it. Word spread, as Katz distributed free copies at school, and teachers started requesting the handouts and designing lesson plans around them. After they published the engineering book, the couple helped write the stories of other women, such as an assistant curator at the San Diego Zoo and a marine biologist on Catalina Island.

So far, the couple have sold 80,000 books. The paperback and hardcover books, which sell for $6 to $7, are sold at science museums and other book stores; some are available in Spanish. The books are available online at http://www.cascadepass.com.

At book signings, Cohen tells girls not to shy away from male-dominated fields. In the late '60s, when she began her career, only one-half of 1% of all engineers were women--but that didn't faze her.

"I had already figured out," she said, "that I was going to do things that no [other girls] ever did."

Renee Tawa can be reached by e-mail at Renee.Tawa@latimes.com.

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