Working together to build a technical workforce

| July 9, 2014

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 decide to study for their degree at Sweet Briar’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, which is one of only two in the country at all-women’s colleges to offer an ABET-accredited degree.

Sweet Briar associate professor of engineering Scott Pierce explains logic and programming during the 2013 summer Explore Engineering.

In the best of all scenarios, they will seek jobs locally after graduating, becoming part of a pool of professionals educated in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math. Companies such as AREVA Inc. need a pipeline of skilled technical workers, which is why the company is partially underwriting 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,” said Gary Mignogna, CEO of AREVA Inc. “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, participants are taught basic engineering skills such as building circuits and 3D computer modeling — then they are turned loose to design, build, test and improve their projects. 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, 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. They also will meet and have lunch with AREVA engineers working in the nuclear energy field.

This year, participants will tackle four projects: a robotic musical instrument — the biggest undertaking of the week; a water filtration system; a robotic door that verifies the maker’s identity and opens only for her; and an automatically refilling water bowl for a dog.

Basic instruction, planning and shopping for supplies take place Monday and Tuesday. The building, testing and improving phases happen Wednesday through Friday morning, just in time for participants to demonstrate their creations for a gathering of parents, students, faculty and guests at a 10:30 a.m. exhibition.

Arlene Hernandez (Bakersfield, Calif.) works on her team’s lock-and-dam project during the 2013 summer Explore Engineering.

Sweet Briar launched the Explore Engineering program — which annually consists of the weeklong summer course and two shorter weekend camps held in the spring and fall — six years ago with support from the National Science Foundation. Since then, more than 275 young women have participated. AREVA began sponsoring the program in 2013 because of its track record of bringing women and minorities into the profession.

It’s a collaboration Marjette Upshur, Lynchburg’s economic development director, appreciates.

“Early exposure to STEM fields focuses young students on future careers,” Upshur said. “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.”

Lindsay Davis, Sweet Briar Class of 2013, is a case in point. Today she is a process engineer at Advance Manufacturing Technology Inc. in Lynchburg. In 2008, she was a high school student from Virginia Beach thinking about her future.

“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 another job in Cary, N.C., 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. And, by that time, she says, Lynchburg felt like home.

With a full-time job, Davis can’t be as involved in Explore Engineering as she was as a student. But she will be available for the alumna dinner, where the high school women ask questions of their predecessors. She would do more if she could.

“I love the Explore Engineering programs,” she says. “Attending one helped me choose my career, but working the Explores for all four years developed me as an engineer outside of normal classes.

“I learned to program microcontrollers two years before it was taught in a class and because of that, I was able to do more sophisticated projects when I finally took the class. I also helped teach high school girls basic engineering skills such as creative brainstorming, simple circuits, soldering and [using] machine shop equipment.”

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Explore Engineering