Mentors work with girls to foster interest in civil engineering

To help girls in Blaine High School’s Center for Engineering, Mathematics and Science (CEMS) have a deeper understanding of civil engineering, Dr. Lori Dykstra connected with the Women in Transportation Studies’ Minnesota Chapter.

Center for Engineering, Mathematics and Science student Nadine Garcia works with Rhonda S. Pierce, a civil engineer for Pierce Pini & Associates in Blaine as part of Transportation You sponsored by Women in Transportation Studies. Photo submitted

Center for Engineering, Mathematics and Science student Nadine Garcia works with Rhonda S. Pierce, a civil engineer for Pierce Pini & Associates in Blaine as part of Transportation You sponsored by Women in Transportation Studies. Photo submitted

Founded in the 1970s, WTS works to transform the transportation industry through the advancement of women.

WTS offers “Transportation You,” a program that highlights career opportunities in the transportation industry. Through Transportation You, Rhonda S. Pierce, a civil engineer for Pierce Pini & Associates in Blaine, and Marie Colt, a civil engineer at the SRF Consulting Group office in Plymouth, have been working with a group of girls.

Dykstra opened the opportunity to get involved with the program to civil engineering and architecture students.

The program kicked off in October 2012 when the mentors and students met for the first time. Through March, monthly meetings discussing specific topics, such as bridge design and planning and policy, are being held. The program concludes in April with a visit to the Blaine Airport and a year-end celebration.

At the January meeting, the mentors and students were joined by Shawn Haag, a program coordinator with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. The focus of the meeting was traffic and safety and Haag introduced the group to a “Distraction Dodger” activity available on the U’s website.

After the activity with the girls, the mentors spoke about their paths to becoming engineers.

As a young student, Pierce, who grew up in Brooklyn Park, received top scores in math and science. One time she and eight boys were at the top of a math ranking. The boys told her she shouldn’t be there.

“A naively arrogant child, I looked at them and said ‘I am smarter than you and you and you,’” she said. “Other girls wouldn’t have been as vocal when they were teased. While things have changed they are not changing fast enough. Even 20 years ago there were 10 women in my engineering class in college. Not all of us went into engineering; a few went into business or management.”

Pierce had always planned to be a lawyer, but with an interest in math and science, found herself studying engineering at the University of Minnesota. She started out studying aerospace engineering, but when she learned from a friend her career paths would be working for a business that made weapons or going into the military, she changed to civil engineering.

“As a civil engineer you work on projects that last a long time,” she said. “These are things you can point out to your children.”

Cote grew up in Hawaii where she attended a private high school. While she got good grades, she was also involved with sports and wasn’t one of the top students. When it came time for college Cote chose to attend a liberal arts school, Loyola Marymount University in California.

She thought engineering and medicine were for the “smart students,” but met an engineering student who was “cool, funny and social.” He changed her mind about engineering students and influenced her to study the discipline.

“While I was a good student and had taken higher level courses in high school, I wasn’t at the top 5 percent; it took me getting to college and meeting people to give me the confidence to make the leap to study engineering,” Cote said. “My roommates in college were studying psychology and business and I found myself studying three times as hard as they did.”

Both members of WTS, the women joined the mentor program because they’ve seen a lack of women in the field of civil engineering. Pierce said she is always looking for opportunities to mentor and teach.

Cote has heard comments that are concerning.

“I have children in high school and parents of girls will ask me if their daughters are smart enough to get into engineering,” she said. “At one school girls are told that boys do better on tests than girls. That gives them the message that the girls are a step behind.”

Dykstra said some people might think that girls are not as good at hands-on mechanical activities. She said things are changing and noted that in the past few years she’s seen Legos that are female orientated. With Lego targeting girls, she hopes to see a change.

Pierce, who has a son and daughter as well as nieces in the CEMS program, also sees a difference between boys and girls. While boys are more confident and tend to ask questions in class, girls tend to hold back and not ask questions like boys.

While anecdotal evidence of mechanical and building skills and confidence favors boys, anecdotal evidence has girls leading in something just as important, soft skills.

Dykstra said many girls are interested in careers that help people.

While they don’t see engineering as a field that will allow them to help people, Dykstra likes to point out that in a field like biotechnology, girls can create things that save people’s lives.

According to Dykstra, until she was involved with CEMS, she didn’t realize how much creativity there is in engineering.

Pierce agreed that was true and said it’s important for girls to understand that creativity is part of the job.

Cote said other key soft skills many women possess are social skills and the ability to communicate. It is not natural for some male engineers in upper or project management to communicate issues.

“Some women have an easier time having conversations,” she said. “I treat my employees like a team and we work together. That comes naturally to me. This is a strength that tends to shine more brightly for women.”

“Women have a better ability to bring other people’s ideas together,” Pierce said. “And I think women do a better idea of thinking outside the box and looking for different ways to solve a problem.”

No matter an engineer’s gender, both Pierce and Cote agree that the world of engineering has changed and engineers need to improve their writing skills. Where at one time communication was done through memos that were reviewed by numerous people and proof read, email and texts are the name of the game now; engineers need to be able to respond quickly and coherently to clients.

“Kids want analytic skills and see communication as a soft skill,” Pierce said. “People with communication skills will move up more quickly in their careers.”

“Some students can do the technical side of the job, but someone who can give a presentation and convey his or her information to an audience is a step ahead,” Cote said. “There are a lot of smart people in engineering, but there is more to a career than giving the right answer to a problem.”

“My dream is to bring English into the CEMS curriculum,” Dykstra said. “I’d also like to add a deeper writing component to the CEMS research projects.”

Pierce, Cote and Haag had high praise for the CEMS program. While Pierce has first-hand knowledge and Haag is a member of the CEMS Advisory Board, Cote is enjoying learning about the program through her mentoring work.

In its sixth year, the program can accommodate 180 students a year in grades nine through 12. The program has grown over the years as has its retention rate for students starting in ninth grade until they graduate.

“The emphasis on math and science is great for preparing students for college,” Pierce said. “CEMS teachers have high expectations for students to achieve and do well. The bar is set high and the students work hard. This will transfer to college, work and life in general.”

Haag likes that CEMS shows students the opportunities they have in science and engineering.

“CEMS prepares students for engineering programs,” Haag said. “Sometimes you see students who test well and get good grades, but they are not necessarily prepared for college. Going through CEMS will help students in the long run. Even if CEMS students don’t go into science or engineering, the program prepares them well for their time in college.”

Dykstra said she values the relationships built between the mentors and the girls because it gives the girls good role models.

“Role models for girls are really important because in our country there has been a negative image of being a smart woman,” Dykstra said. “We need to show girls roles models that you can be smart and still be attractive. I like the mentorships because I am showing them females that can do that.”

She appreciated the conversation the mentors had after the January session.

“It continues to re-affirm that we are providing the right type of instruction and experiences for the students,” Dykstra said. “It also validated my desire to eventually bring English in as a CEMS class as the soft skills of writing and public speaking are so critical.”

Transportation You’s next meeting is set for Feb. 27 and will include a field trip to Metro Transit in Minneapolis. For a full experience, the students and mentors will meet at the Blaine Park & Ride and take a Metro Transit bus to downtown Minneapolis.

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