|Kiara Hightower watches as the current from a plasma ball lights a small LED bulb during a day camp at the College of Charleston where educators, engineers and scientists showed eighth- and ninth-grade girls opportunities that exist in science, technology, engineering and math. (Photo/Leslie Burden)|
Published Aug. 13, 2012
When Rebecca Ufkes’ daughter told her mom — the president of UEC Electronics — that she wanted to change her major from engineering to something less difficult, the moment reminded Ufkes of a conversation years ago when she told her parents the same thing.
Like her parents, she persuaded her daughter, a second-year engineering student, to stay through that first year because she knew it would get better, and the tough classes would give her a foundation to be self-reliant and find good paying jobs wherever she wanted to work.
“The first two years are not the most exciting, and that’s where we lose our engineers,” Ufkes said during a day camp at the College of Charleston this month to introduce young women to the opportunity presented by careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
“So, we had a little chat about if you have something else you’re passionate about, fine, but I told her get in the car and go back or come back home,” Ufkes said, adding that her daughter’s was not an uncommon reaction among bright engineering students.
“The first two years are not the most exciting, and that’s where we lose our engineers.”
“We’re one of the largest technical employers in the state,” Miller told the room full of eighth- and ninth-grade girls and their parents. “The idea here is really to get out and engage and inspire some of our young ladies.”
Miller attended the event with his 4-year-old daughter, Avery, who played with his iPhone while he spoke. Miller said she represented his personal investment in making sure women understood the opportunities available to them in science, technology, engineering and math.
He said about half of the employees at SPAWAR are women, but only 15% are engaged in technical and engineering work. Several of those women were on hand for the day camp to talk to the girls and perform demonstrations.
“I started asking a lot of questions,” Miller said. “I started finding out this isn’t just a local Charleston thing or a South Carolina thing. This is really a national issue that we really are under-represented with women in technical fields.”
The camp was presented by SPAWAR and supported by the College of Charleston, The Citadel and Charleston Southern University along with several companies, including Bosch and Boeing. The day-long event featured hands-on demonstrations of the kind of work engineers do at the participating organizations.
Lauren Wolf, an aerospace engineer with Boeing, told a group of students about her experience working all over the world with the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer.
|Chris Miller, executive director of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic|
“If you don’t like math and science, don’t worry,” Wolf told the group of girls. “You’ll be going out and solving problems.”
Wolf said scientists and engineers often have to consider how something will be used and must incorporate that into their design, which makes art part of the process for some kinds of engineering.
“There are so many ways you can touch people’s lives,” she said.
At one station, students navigated through a 3-D computer simulation, while others controlled a robot used in the First Robotics competition by teams from Summerville and Ashley Ridge high schools.
Other students helped a SPAWAR programmer control a remote flying hover drone using a handheld tablet computer. The operator could see on the tablet’s screen what the drone was seeing to help maneuver the vehicle. In another demonstration, students saw the inside of a remote-controlled rover that could be used in reconnaissance missions to dangerous areas while keeping troops at a safe distance.
The SPAWAR worker showed students that the components were fairly inexpensive by design, because the rover could be destroyed depending on the circumstances. She also said it allowed it to be adaptable to different kinds of missions, and engineers were all part of making it work.
Miller said that kind of hands-on interaction and support from educators is critical in drawing students into STEM fields early on, and it’s in the eighth and ninth grades where students could begin laying the foundation for such a career.
|SPAWAR’s Lakeithrick Harris helps Morgan Williams operate a remote controlled hovercraft with a tablet computer. (Photo/Leslie Burden)|
Ufkes said UEC Electronics in Charleston employs different kinds of engineers to design and integrate parts and to make quick-turn products for commercial manufacturers, the Department of Defense and, more recently, with Boeing.
Ufkes told the camp attendees that when her career began, she was one of two female manufacturing engineers at an aerospace company. They were the only two with engineering degrees, but when the company had to move people around, they targeted the women first after the male engineers signed a petition.
“They were going to put me in finance. What am I going to do in finance?” Ufkes said. She said she had a couple of options, including throwing a tantrum or filing a lawsuit. “What’re you going to do? I left. I’m young. I have a degree, and I went to Sikorsky,” another aerospace company.
She emphasized that such discriminatory action would never be tolerated today, but she advised the young women that they were likely to come up against obstacles, regardless of what field they pursued, and that they should find a way to maneuver around adversity.
“When you hit these walls, when you get to people who are difficult, I wouldn’t spend any more time on them. Go around them and keep going,” she said.
“I wanted choices and options. I wanted to be able to move around, I didn’t want to get locked into one thing, and I wanted stability. I wanted financial security,” Ufkes said. “I knew that by being an engineer, by having skills that people would pay for, I would have that whether I worked in any field of engineering.”
Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.