This week is National Engineers Week, or Eweek for short. Part of Eweek is introducing girls to STEM careers. So I asked the women in our Engineering and Land Development Studios to take part in a Q&A and offer their insight about why they pursued a STEM career, their school experience, and how we can increase the number of women in STEM fields.
The Panel (L to R):
Kristina Vaclavek – a recent Structural Engineering grad from Michigan where she was a 3-year Captain of the Wolverines hockey team.
Jenny Sigmund – a former Carolina Panthers cheerleader who earned her Mechanical Engineering degree from Clemson and joined Little 16 years ago.
Casey Cline – a marathon runner and avid painter who recently joined Little after earning a Masters in Landscape Architecture from NC State.
Q: What got you interested in the architecture/engineering industry? Was there an event, or a person, that inspired you to follow this path?
Kristina: I’ve always wanted to know how things work. As I grew older, my curiosity of larger structures outpaced my need to take apart and rebuild Legos. Coupled with the fact that I found science and math subjects fascinating in school, it was just a matter of time before I figured out I wanted to pursue an engineering degree in college. My choice to become a structural engineer is where my architecture interest came into play. I was at a hockey tournament in Hartford, CT which has retained its historic features over the years. While I was walking downtown in my free time, I caught interest in the historic structures nestled between the modern ones and wondered how to build a structure that could within stand the test of time. How do you build for longevity? How do you build for performance? How do you build into the cultural fabric of a city? My interest in fulfilling those characteristics is what I can do as an engineer to enrich the lives of those who will visit, live in, or work in the structures I design.
Jenny: As I child, I was always intrigued with dismantling our electronics at home and building things. When given career aptitude tests in middle school, I scored high in math and sciences and was told that a career in engineering would be best suited for me. So, while in high school, I excelled in these types of classes and knew that majoring in some type of engineering in college would be a perfect career path for me to follow.
Casey: I grew up with a passion for art and design that was discovered at an early age by my family and elementary school teachers. It was not until my sophomore year at NC State that I really learned what landscape architecture actually was and that all of my interests were encompassed in one profession.
On a funny note so the story goes, the day after I was born my mother (Little’s Ruth Cline) was going over architectural plans with her boss at the time in the hospital. So on the other hand, I guess you could say I was born into the industry.
Q: When you were in school, did you find that teachers and counselors encouraged girls into STEM careers? Or were you dissuaded from science and math?
K: I wouldn’t say they went out of their way to encourage girls into STEM careers but they certainly didn’t discourage either. Most of my math teachers were women so I suppose that was silent encouragement. My high school physics and chemistry teachers seemed to have preferred having girls in their classes to make the boys work harder. Just kidding! When I got to college, my professors didn’t give preference to anyone in particular but rather enjoyed any student that showed interest and asked questions.
J: In school, I excelled in math and science courses. However, I was also involved in other extra-curricular activities that would be considered the polar opposite of a STEM type career. I took piano lessons and I was a high school cheerleader. It was very difficult trying to balance both stereotypes, but I managed with the help of my teachers and have found that it is a very encouraging story to tell young girls who are trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up.
C: In high school, the school of technology was promoted as a resource through Central Piedmont Community College for high school students seeking technical training in STEM professions such as engineering and architecture and various other disciplines. This gave all students an open opportunity to explore these career paths. School advisors could guide students based on their personal interests to take these technology based courses that took a more in depth look at STEM careers.
In college, there were many clubs and support groups that promoted STEM careers. WILA (Women in Landscape Architecture) was a resource for women going into landscape architecture. We met with female professionals and professors to discuss the impacts of women in landscape architecture.
Q: Is there is a critical grade/age for girls where they lose interest in science and math?
K: I’m not certain there’s a critical age, perhaps in high school when there are so many changes and all anyone wants to do is fit in. Generally speaking, no one wants to be called a “nerd” and I think girls are more afraid of these kinds of labels especially at such a defining time.
J: I think that the younger the better when trying to encourage interest in science and math for girls as they are more impressionable at that age and absorb knowledge like a sponge. As long as learning is fun, it doesn’t matter what the subject is in my opinion… not to mention, it makes it easier when you make things colorful and sparkly to grab their attention.
C: I don’t believe so.
Q: There has been a lot of effort lately to promote STEM careers to women. What do you think is needed to increase the number of women in engineering?
K: In order to increase the number of women in engineering I definitely think there has to be encouragement. There should be an avenue for young girls to talk to professionals so that they realize the opportunities open to them. [Ed. note – there’s an online resource for exactly this now.] In addition, more outreach to classrooms not just at the grade school level but high school as well. If there were more STEM related activities that sparked interest at the teenage level, I believe that would be a step forward.
J: By showing that women can be as relevant as men are in the industry. I know that girls/young women are bombarded with princesses and ballerinas while growing up and, for me personally, I had a hard time battling both stereotypes… I was a major geek when it came to science/math/engineering, but yet I was a high school cheerleader, sorority girl and then went on to a glamorous life of professional cheerleading in the NFL. For me, I am living proof that it is okay to do both.
C: As of May 2013 the graduating class at NC State in landscape architecture had more female students than male. I think the more aware young women become that they can succeed in STEM careers, the more drawn they will be to pursue their passions.
Q: Jenny – you have young daughters. If they show strong interest in math and science, how will you encourage them to stay with it?
J: At ages 4 and 5, my daughters are showing very strong interest in math and science already. It is a joy to watch them count to 100 by 1’s, 5’s or 10’s and to listen to them explain how a snowflake is made. I just make it a point to be very supportive and active in encouraging them to learn… I think with me being in a STEM career it will be much easier for me to encourage them to stay with it. After all, I will be much better at helping with math homework than I would be trying to find the hidden meaning behind some poem.
Q: Casey and Kris – you both are recent college grads. What advice would you offer to women about to enter college to pursue an engineering degree, or to a high school student considering engineering as a major?
K: My advice would be to not be intimidated by your impressions of the engineering field; if you have a passion, then pursue it. There are a lot more women in engineering than you probably think. It’s a lot of hard work, but the payoff is the accomplishment of becoming someone who can apply ingenuity and technical knowledge find real world solutions to make the world a better place.
C: Go for it!! There are millions of women succeeding in the professions today. Find resources such as clubs, mentors and events that can reassure and encourage your interest in the profession. Soon you will realize that you are not alone.
I believe this will be a continuing conversation. Having recently read an article in the Washington Post, the focus can’t simply be on recruitment of women but also retaining them. Some believe keeping women in engineering is harder than recruiting, and it’s backed up by a recent study that says women are 45% more likely than men to leave the industry within a year. I look forward to hearing what our panel has to say about this in the near future.
If you’re looking for additional inspiration, search for Natalie Panek. A robotic operator and aerospace engineer at MDA space missions who formerly interned at NASA, see her inspirational TEDxYouth video or her website devoted to increasing women in STEM fields. She’s been on many great adventures and uses those experiences to encourage women to take risks (since women are 3 times more risk adverse than men.) EngineerJobs.com also posted this interview with Natalie a few days ago.