‘It’s hard to be bored’: Middle-school girls get taste of engineering

  • Sonia Laughland, an ExxonMobil environmental engineer and regulatory advisor at work on permitting for the production facility at Point Thomson on the North Slope, told 120 middle school students from Mat-Su Borough, Eagle River and Anchorage about her experiences as a woman in the engineering field. (Photo/Courtesy/Nance Larsen)

Kaitlyn Payne didn’t anticipate having a career as an ExxonMobil environmental engineer.

She never pictured an engineer’s job could entail detecting polar bears by radar or counting caribou population herds in Alaska via their “spectral signature.” That’s a new technology that avoids using more intrusive helicopter and airplane census.

Based on the size of the pixels, Payne tracks caribou populations counting calves versus adults.

“I didn’t have any engineers in my family. I wasn’t aware of what you do as an engineer,” Payne said in her introduction at a panel discussion for “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” Nov. 1 at the Change Point Building in Anchorage.

Paine “rejigged” her major from agricultural studies to environmental issues after an internship for Rep. Michael McNulty, D-NY, in the late 1990s.

“As an intern, I had learned about environmental issues and challenges facing companies. I thought I could probably help with that,” she said.

Targeting an interest in engineering fields at a younger age such as junior high could have focused Payne’s studies a lot earlier and saved her a change in college major. That’s the idea behind Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, a time when professionals mentor and inspire 120 middle grade students through hands on science-engineering projects.

ExxonMobil Corp., the Anchorage School District and the Girl Scouts of Alaska organized the event meant to interest more women into future engineering fields. The girls came from the Mat-Su Borough, Eagle River and Anchorage.

They might already have a science preference, or a teacher or scout leader recommended them to attend, Payne said.

Currently, only 14 percent of all engineers in America are females, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, or ASME.

That’s up from 5.8 percent in the early 1980s and better boding for days ahead because 18 percent to 20 percent of engineering students are now women, the ASME estimates.

Reasons for the low ratio include lack of female engineering role models, misconceptions of what it’s like to be an engineer and lacking opportunities to problem-solve like real world engineers do, according to the ASME.

“The numbers are not there professionally,” said Sue Perles, the executive director of Girl Scouts of Alaska. “Engineering courses at colleges and universities are male-dominated. But this is an option. I believe if you let girls hear that message while they are young enough, they will not be the least bit bothered by the historical dominance by the field.”

The Girl Scouts have long held a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) emphasis, Perles said.

“This event fits so well with scouts’ emphasis on STEM and career exploration, teaching them to be brave and do things they might not otherwise do,” she said.

Payne said, “We wanted to give girls key, hands-on experiences and exposure to people from the University of Alaska Engineering school, volunteers from different organizations, to show all the various things you can – which I’m not sure is emphasized in school.”

Role models came in the form of college students and professionals — both female and male — in telecom, mechanical, chemical and environmental engineering fields.

“They saw male engineers at the events as well who are supportive and want them to succeed,” said Sonia Laughland, an ExxonMobil chemical engineer.

They also gave lots of advice.

An engineering degree can be completed in four years. Some may chose to specialize further through a master’s or Ph.D. program, but the basic degree prepares one for job-readiness upon graduation.

You don’t have to be good at all science and math areas such as geometry and calculus, for example.

“If you aren’t good in every subject, it’s OK,” said Sonia Laughland.

In her own case, born in Russia, raised in Canada and Arizona, English wasn’t her first language. Switching to the American math system gave her the first C she’d ever earned.

But at the University of Arizona in Tuscan, she found herself part of a team of engineering students who studied and worked together to tackle physics and chemistry problems.

“You’re in it together,” Laughland told her mentoring group. “You’ll make friends and study group partners. They will help you and you’ll help them.”

Engineering doesn’t follow the stereotype of isolated lab work in real life, either.

At ExxonMobil, Laughland is an environmental and regulatory advisor at work on permitting for the production facility at Point Thomson on the North Slope.

She accepted the position five years ago after internships in mining and at Proctor and Gamble.

Payne and Laughland form an environmental team with others at ExxonMobil analyzing a number of technical factors, though Laughland’s area is air emissions, water use compliance and waste management on site.

“My mentor had worked at Exxon 35 years when she retired. It was fascinating to hear how she got to where she was; I can’t imagine the struggles. She had a strong personality and you can see why,” Laughland said.

Katie Johnson, another presenter at the event, was a Susitna Girl Scout for 11 years, from Brownies to senior year at Stellar High School in Anchorage. She is a mechanical engineer for Coffman Engineers.

The troop sold Girl Scout cookies as competitively as any other, but they were also on a leading end of the STEM push.

“We were a science-heavy troop. I think we earned just about every single science-related badge that could be had,” Johnson said. “Some of it was the function of the leader, Kathy Adkins, who was willing to let us pursue our dreams. We called our 606 Troop Bob.”

After graduating from Stellar High School in 1998, Johnson earned a mathematics degree from Purdue University and an engineering degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

As a frequent mentor for high school students and scouts, she tells them teamwork and problem-solving skills are as relevant to engineering as science and math.

“I tell students every mistake you make is just part of the fabric of your life. It’s part of your story. Learn as much from your mistakes as your successes,” Johnson said.

At Coffman Engineers, she works on oil and gas design for Alaska production clients, conducting stress analysis, code compliance and maintenance plans.

“It’s constantly different and each project is a little different. It’s rewarding to see designs and plans,” Johnson said.

The mood of the day’s mentoring sessions can’t help but get infectious as students delved into balloons as building blocks and ventured into the chemistry of lava lamps.

“It’s hard to be bored if you’re an engineer,” Laughland tells them. “You get the best of both worlds, to be creative and to be technical.”

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Naomi Klouda can be reached at naomi.klouda@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
11/08/2017 - 10:37am

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