During the week of July 20-25, more than 20 high school women will immerse in Sweet Briar’s summer Explore Engineering Design, an intensive one-credit college course and a pretty thorough introduction to what engineers in the real world do.
Some may like what they discover well enough to pursue a career in the field. Historically, about 20 percent of participants enroll in Sweet Briar’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program. In the best of all scenarios, these women will complete degrees in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — and seek related jobs after graduating, expanding and diversifying the pool of skilled professionals entering the workplace.
Industries need a steady pipeline of capable technical workers who also bring different life experiences, and therefore fresh viewpoints and approaches, to the problems engineers wrestle with every day. That’s why AREVA Inc., a world leader in nuclear power and a large employer in the Lynchburg area, partially underwrites Explore Engineering.
“Sponsoring the program at Sweet Briar is one way AREVA invests in STEM education to support the vital growth of the U.S. energy economy, and to develop our next generation of industry leaders,” says Gary Mignogna, CEO of AREVA in North America.
“Sweet Briar’s ‘Explore Engineering’ and programs like it are poised to bridge the gap between demand and availability of STEM talent, as well as support workforce diversity in STEM-related fields.”
Over five days, Explore participants are taught basic engineering skills such as building circuits and 3D computer modeling — then they are turned loose to be engineers: They design, build, test and improve several assigned projects. This year they will build a robotic musical instrument, for example. The program emphasizes creativity, working in teams and problem solving. Current Sweet Briar students mentor them throughout the week and stay with them in the residence hall, so they also experience campus life at Sweet Briar.
In addition to interacting with engineering professionals on Sweet Briar’s faculty, camp participants tour AREVA’s Technical Training Center in Lynchburg. They’ll see real-size models of steam generators, reactor vessels and other major components of nuclear power plants, including a water-filled reactor pit and a fuel-handling crane for pressurized water and boiling water reactors. After the tour, they will meet and have lunch with women engineers who work there. AREVA officials also will visit during the week to see the campers in action, and a member of the company’s Women in Nuclear group will spend some time coaching them.
Explore Engineering annually consists of the weeklong summer course and two shorter weekend camps held in the spring and fall. Since Sweet Briar launched the program in the fall of 2008 with support from the National Science Foundation, more than 275 young women have participated in it. Seeing a track record of engaging women and minorities in the profession, AREVA began sponsoring Explore in 2013 with grants totaling $50,000 to date.
As one of only two women’s colleges in the country to offer an ABET-accredited degree, Explore Engineering is an essential tool for achieving the Wyllie Engineering Program’s goals, says director Hank Yochum. Its full impact is still coming into focus as the first Explore alumnae begin to complete their degrees at Sweet Briar and head off to graduate school or jobs in STEM fields.
“The support from AREVA for our Explore Engineering events helps us continue to fulfill our commitment to increasing the number of women in engineering professions,” Yochum says.
The collaboration between Sweet Briar and AREVA also benefits the local community, says Marjette Upshur, Lynchburg’s economic development director.
“Early exposure to STEM fields focuses young students on future careers,” Upshur says. “With the number of jobs in STEM fields growing quickly — and available right here in Lynchburg — we applaud Sweet Briar and AREVA for their efforts to prepare young women for jobs in engineering and engage them in the Lynchburg community.”
The example of Lindsay Davis ’13 helps make her point. Davis, a process engineer at Advance Manufacturing Technology Inc. in Lynchburg, was a high school student from Virginia Beach when she attended Sweet Briar’s first Explore camp.
“I’ve always been interested in engineering but I didn’t always know it was called engineering,” Davis says. “I knew I wanted to be creative and to make things that matter. When I attended the Explore Engineering program, it was the first time I put a name to the passion.”
After graduation, Davis could have taken a job in North Carolina, but the desire to make useful products kept her in Lynchburg. AMTI offered her a position industrializing assembly processes for the Filip, a children’s cell phone watch with technology that lets parents find the wearer’s location. By that time, Lynchburg — where she had interned at AREVA as a student — already felt like home.
Category: Engineering Science