Joanie Banks-Hunt, an instructor in the Virginia Tech Honors College who will complete her Ph.D. in education psychology with Engineering Education Certification this fall at the Virginia Tech School of Education, is one of six women featured in a new documentary series titled, “Inspire! Six Trailblazing Women Engineers Inspire the Next Generation.”

The premiere of the documentary will be held virtually from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 5.

“Inspire!” was produced by Laura Ettinger, associate professor of history at Clarkson University, and directed by Zac Miller, founder of Uncommon Image Studios. In this three-part educational video series, accomplished female engineers share their stories to both contextualize and examine the obstacles young women encounter in STEM fields.

“Joanie’s story inspires me in so many ways,” said Ettinger. “From the time she was a girl growing up in Detroit, she had to push through many barriers to get where she wanted to go. Joanie didn't fit the stereotype of an engineer, when she first entered the field in the 1970s or even today. She has accomplished so much – in high tech in the Silicon Valley, in STEM education and leadership, and now in higher education. Joanie has helped pave the way for the next generation, especially for young women and people of color who want to enter the STEM fields.”

For Banks-Hunt, her involvement with “Inspire!” began four years ago when she participated in a survey looking for women who had earned an engineering degree in the 1970s.

The interview process took place in 2017 and 2018. Ettinger interviewed 47 women, all of whom will be featured in a forthcoming book. Six of them are featured in her educational videos and documentary and served as mentors at a Clarkson University’s STEAM summer camp.

The experience gave Banks-Hunt, who was in one of the first graduating groups of female engineers from Stanford, an opportunity to reflect on her own pursuit in STEM.

“It made me really think back and memorialize a lot of my journey that I just haven’t thought about,” explained Banks-Hunt. “I never really saw myself as a trailblazer, and when they put that word there, I thought, ‘Who’s that? That’s somebody else, right?’ But we are all trailblazers. You just don’t necessarily give yourself credit for the contributions you are making.”

The six trailblazing women engineers featured in Inspire! standing alongside Dr. Laura Ettinger. (From left to right) Debra Dibble Boone, Kate Harper, Susan Suhr, Laura Ettinger, Suzanne Hardie, Joanie Banks-Hunt, and Sheree Gibson
The six trailblazing women engineers featured in “Inspire!,” from left: Debra Dibble Boone, Kate Harper, Susan Suhr, Suzanne Hardie, Joanie Banks-Hunt, and Sheree Gibson. Photograph was taken before COVID-19 and provided by Laura Ettinger.

A young child sees an opportunity

Banks-Hunt’s interest in engineering initiated as a child. She was the fourth child to be born in a family of 10 children.

“Things were always in a state of disrepair. My father was always fixing things,” Banks-Hunt said. In particular, she recalled broken lamps being a regular problem. Her father would try his best to fix them. But, eventually — out of frustration — he would often leave the broken lamp out to return to the repair job later. He worked multiple jobs, after all. That’s when young Banks-Hunt saw an opportunity.

“I love my dad so much that I just wanted to be his hero because he was my hero,” Banks-Hunt said. “So, I would fix these things and just leave it like it was. I would fix it by figuring out the positive and negative wires. I figured out how switches worked … That was a big thing, initially, just fixing broken lamps so that we could have light in our home. He would come home and say, ‘See? I told you guys, I said, ‘stick with it!’ It’s working, now, I just needed to let it set for a while!’”

Since her father was so happy, Banks-Hunt never revealed that she was the secret repairwoman. She also learned the value of repairing and reusing items – no matter how old they looked.

“I didn’t see myself as an engineer. I didn’t even know what an engineer did, but I loved mathematics. I used to read math books like people read storybooks. I used to teach the neighbors math and I was known as a math tutor before I knew what that was,” Banks-Hunt said.

When Banks-Hunt was in her senior year at Michigan State University earning her credentials in teaching and bachelors in mathematics, she saw a flyer advertising a visiting speaker. The visitor was the dean at Stanford Graduate School of Engineering, James Gibbons, and his topic was about how mathematics could be used to engineer something new. “I thought that was ridiculous!” said Banks-Hunt. Still, she decided to attend the lecture.

“He was talking about the future of robotics and I have never heard of ‘robotics,’ but I knew about automation. Automobile automation was huge,” said Banks-Hunt. “He talked about jobs going away and being replaced by robots and various automated devices … I remember getting upset and I raised my hand, in a very large hall, where there weren’t many women, and I said, ‘Well, my father is a postman. Who is going to retrain my dad? He doesn’t have any other education, and he has a big family to feed. I think this is awful that you’re taking jobs without thinking or training people for new jobs.’ Everyone’s heads turned.”

Seeing how passionate Banks-Hunt was, the dean invited her to have a conversation with him after the lecture — and asked her if she would like to come to Stanford University. He revealed that he was there to recruit women in electronic engineering at Stanford’s graduate school because their graduate school didn’t have any women.

As a Black woman, Banks-Hunt’s journey in the field in engineering was difficult. Her passion for technology and helping people with that technology is what kept her moving forward, despite facing challenges of prejudice.

“There was a lot of unfairness and there was definitely a lot of exclusion,” she said. “But I think that there was also an opportunity for me to work more closely with people and to be seen as a person — and not as the person they wanted to avoid, the woman that was different from everybody else.”

Banks-Hunt said her dream is to see people, especially Honors College students, affect global challenges by working together across disciplines.

“Most global challenges are transdisciplinary,” Banks-Hunt explained. “I would just love to see the future generation tackling those problems to make global society a much safer and livable environment.”

Research and background

Banks-Hunt’s original research is a phenomenology study on design thinking in youth STEM classes. She developed innovative, hands-on, and engineering-based elective courses in STEM initiatives with an emphasis on “Girls in STEM.”

Prior to entering the Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech, Banks-Hunt was a member of the Menlo School faculty in Atherton, California, from 2001 until 2015. At Menlo, Banks-Hunt pioneered leading edge curricula in engineering and technology education for middle and high school students. Her vision, collaboration, and academic passion led to the realization of precollege engineering courses — and an over 10,000-square-foot, high-technology facility for teaching and learning engineering disciplinary content in the center of the Menlo School campus.

Banks-Hunt was also part of one of the very first design teams to develop the internet in a joint venture between Convergent Technologies and 3-Com Corp., companies operational in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Banks-Hunt was the Convergent Technologies member of the co-development design team with 3Com, led by Robert Metcalfe. The design team introduced the first 10-megabit per second Ethernet networking interface useful for the most high-speed internet communication at the time.

As a graduate student at Virginia Tech, Banks-Hunt was instrumental in key initiative research and practice, conferences, and community service. She participated in proposal writing and program implementation for the Virginia Tech and Qualcomm partnership agreement for the Thinkabit Lab. She was also a graduate assistant for the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence (formerly CIDER: Center for Instruction Design and Education Research), and a volunteer for both the Graduate School Honor System Judicial Panel and the Graduate School of Education Equity and Inclusion Committee.

Banks-Hunt is currently working toward completion of a Ph.D in education psychology with engineering education certification.

Written by Michelle Fleury