Building Interest: National Engineers Week a Good Time to Focus on STEM Advocacy

By Disa Wahlstrand, PE, LEED AP

National Engineers Week is February 16-22. Each year, engineers throughout the United States celebrate this week and its importance in recognizing engineering of all types – and the impact that engineering has on our daily lives.

The Engineering Management Institute’s “The Civil Engineering Podcast” has a Women in Civil Engineering series. As part of the podcast, I and others discussed topics such as the importance of communication among multidiscipline teams.

We also talked about one of my passions – STEM advocacy for girls. Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math fields, and we must be intentional about reversing the trend. It’s crucial to foster and encourage girls’ interest in these topics from very early on – before they’re allowed to write off their potential for these career paths.

How Can We Get Girls More Interested And Involved in STEM Careers?

It starts with everyday opportunities. It’s so important to include girls in hands-on activities, no matter what that might be: working on vehicles, building shelves or other furniture, and even cooking can incorporate science lessons into kids’ daily lives. The options are nearly endless when it comes to toys – especially those that let children use their imagination: Legos, blocks, tool sets, and art supplies to name a few.

There are also more elaborate activity sets that focus on specific interests – everything from robot- and rocket-building kits to crystal-growing kits, rock tumblers, and gardening activities. A quick Internet search even reveals a structural engineering kit, complete with 323 modular building pieces to construct a variety of bridges and skyscrapers and conduct experiments on them.

It’s traditionally been accepted that boys are drawn to and better at science and math. We need to challenge that thinking by not only telling girls they can be good at math and science, but by showing them they are good at it. Frankly, we should expect them to demonstrate strong math and science skills in school and out of school and then recognize when they meet or exceed those expectations.

How Can Engineers And Others Promote STEM?

STEM advocacy for girls and communication go hand in hand. As leaders in our industry, it’s important to reach out where we can. One of my favorite things to do is visit local schools and get the students thinking about engineering on an everyday level. How does the water get to the sink so they can wash their hands, and where does it go when it goes down the drain? Did they use a road or cross a bridge to get to school?

Throughout my career, I’ve learned that communication is so important among all levels of an organization, but especially among those who strive to be successful, approachable leaders. I’ve transitioned into a role of mentorship, and I take great pride in watching a young engineer take on more than they think they’re capable of – and succeeding.

Let’s encourage girls to be our next STEM leaders, and let’s allow them to make their own decisions about their education. I have a liberal arts degree; I am a proponent of big-picture thinking rather than a focus only on all things technical. Equally or more important are those people interaction skills – crucial in management positions and working with clients, contractors, and colleagues.

To learn more, including some of my favorite managers’ characteristics and career advice, listen to my podcast “Effective Communication Is Key With People at All Levels in Civil Engineering.”

Disa Wahlstrand, PE, LEED AP, oversees Ayres’ municipal services and water resources operations in Wisconsin. Since joining Ayres in 1995, she has earned the respect of clients and staff through her excellent communication skills and insightful leadership. She managed the Eau Claire municipal services group from 2005 until becoming vice president of engineering services in 2015.

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