Graduate assistant, Mechanical Engineering Dept
University of Akron
Emma Pierson began her journey into engineering through nursing. She spent two years in the nursing program at Akron, but felt unchallenged by the classes.
“I felt like the classes weren’t necessarily making me work like I thought that college should. I didn’t want to go through college without thinking that I really, really truly earned something. So I started exploring other majors, and since I had already taken all the anatomy and physiology courses, I went into biomedical engineering. When you’re on this track, you’re taking a lot of sophomore mechanical engineering courses. And I enjoyed them. I knew there were more career options available to me with a mechanical engineering degree because it’s a broad subject. So that’s when I switched to mechanical engineering.
Currently, Pierson is a Pathways intern with NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, working with the human factors lab. She is in a graduate program for statistics and looks to focus on dynamics and vibrations.
Pierson was fortunate to have a mother engineer—Dr. Hazel Marie, also profiled in this issue.
“I think I was 12 years old when mom actually finished her PhD,” Pierson says, “so all during my adolescence, mom was in school. Had I not known how fulfilled she felt in her career, even though it’s a challenging field, and knew that it was and always has been a very sought after field, I wouldn’t have thought to go into engineering.”
Pierson also found strong influencers in several of her professors. “Dr. Kelly, my vibrations professor, really made me want to pursue the vibrations field,” she says. “It was so nice to see somebody who knows the subject material so well. And I was really drawn to that. He really drew me into the system dynamics portion of mechanical engineering.”
Putting statistics, dynamics, and vibration to use
While studying for her degrees, Pierson has been a co-op intern with Goodyear for four different rotations involving tire engineering. In these co-op programs, she has worked on several projects, including one funded by NSF called Zipping Towards STEM. In this three-year project, the University of Akron’s engineering department and the department of education created an eighth grade curriculum that was going to be implemented into Akron public school science classes. In this curriculum, teachers would educate students on the basics of aerodynamics. The students would then design a miniature soapbox derby car using basic 3D modeling techniques. Once the students finished their design, they would upload it into a virtual wind tunnel.
“And that’s where we became involved,” says Pierson, “because my senior design team was tasked with creating that virtual wind tunnel capable of uploading any 3D model of a certain size, running a computational fluid dynamic analysis on it, and outputting a simple drag value for those students to learn from. We used Matlab to create the virtual wind tunnel because this program has functions that we used to code the graphical user interface and create the CFD functions for the final output.”
The students were allowed several iterations to improve their design and then they could 3D print it and test it in a small wind tunnel provided for all of the Akron public schools. The final step was to actually race their design on a miniature track.
The U of A project gives public school students a chance to see the whole engineering process in terms of design, analysis, redesign, prototype, and test.
Currently, Pierson is working on a challenging project. “I’m using a lot of the skills that I learned in my senior design project on the virtual wind tunnel. This new project is my Masters work, and I’m funded through the Federal Aviation Administration. They are developing weather related training. They want to see how it would change air traffic controllers’ weather dissemination to pilots if they were to implement probabilistic weather information into their displays instead of just deterministic information.”
Pierson is making another standalone program that will show either deterministic or deterministic and probabilistic information on weather patterns.
“The challenging part of this,” she says, “is that I came into this project six months after somebody else had already started doing the background research. So I had to get up to speed. It’s an odd thing for a mechanical engineer to know how to code software interfaces that will do the type of things we’re able to do.”
The issue was that the previous programmers didn’t know how to test probabilistic versus deterministic situations. “There were a lot of different minds on this project,” she says, “and it was a challenge influencing them to cooperate in how I knew it could be done. We just presented it to the FAA this summer, and they are going to continue funding us. But the challenge is, when you’re working with other engineers, trying not to “step on any toes” in terms of what they’ve already done. When there are multiple people involved, you have to be able to fight for what you think should be done if you know the way to do it. It would be nice if engineering schools included classes on how to deal with human behavior. I definitely think it’s important to choose your own attitude,” she says. “You decide in every situation how you will respond.”
Pierson sees a common but rarely mentioned aspect of education that can dissuade women from pursuing science degrees.
“I’ve always been in advanced math classes since the fifth grade. But pre-calculus was a struggle for me. The math teacher told me outright, ‘Maybe you’re just not good at math.’ Unfortunately, I think a lot of women see that type of attitude. Just because you struggle with one aspect of a subject, the teacher assumes you’re just not good at it and doesn’t stop to wonder if their method of teaching is a problem. When you take a similar class from a different teacher and it’s easy, well now you wonder why you couldn’t get it from the other teacher, but you can get from this one? Then you realize one was able to reach you, whereas the other teacher couldn’t.”
Pierson has seen that everyone learns differently. But many educators think that because they are successful teaching many students, it’s not their teaching methods, it’s just that a student “isn’t good at it.”
“I think that happens way too often,” Pierson continues. In my grad program, I come into contact with people from many different countries, and I’ve had discussions with them about it, and they say that in their country, when someone is struggling with math, it is never, “Oh, you’re not good at it.” It’s, “Try again.”
“In our middle and high school educational system, I’ve seen and heard this same type of story way too often where assumptions are made that maybe you’re not good at this. I think if we could change that type of attitude, it would be a world of a difference. At Akron they have a crash course in software where they do SolidWorks, Matlab, and AutoCad in one semester. You see it then. There are obviously students who have strength in 3D modeling but are not so good at coding. And then you have the students who are great at coding, but their strength isn’t 3D modeling. We need all types of engineers, and I don’t know why we’re so focused on turning out only one type of engineer.”
Dealing with people
Throughout Pierson’s co-ops she has learned that if someone is not interested in working with you and talks down to you, it’s not you, it’s them. She has learned the value of not taking things personally. “A lot of the time, it is someone else’s issue. Find the people that genuinely want to work with you, and really do want to make sure that you understand before you get too far down the pipeline of wrong thinking.
“If the world of engineering is going to make room for women, I think there needs to be a change in the attitude of men. I really don’t think this is solely a woman issue. I think there needs to be a better job done in terms of education for men that there is room for women in this world. Everything that’s been done so far is great, but I think we need to do a better job in terms of getting men on board with it.
“Many of my fellow male students in grad school think that women are less capable, that they receive more opportunity advantages than the guys do. And they hold a lot of animosity towards that, when it’s not true. When a woman gets a scholarship, job interviews and so on, they think the women received them just because she was the diversity pick. Not because she earned it.
“I think this viewpoint is in a lot of the world of engineering where woman have to prove themselves before being respected in any position. But when a man comes in and takes that same position, it’s assumed that they’ve already 100% earned it. You see this in school and in industry.”
Pierson sites an example of a young woman director at Goodyear. “I’m friends with a lot of men there, and they feel free to debate these issues with me. One time there was plenty of commentary about this female director being promoted at a young age, even though there was a man in the same position two years younger than her. The conversation was, “Oh, what did she do to get there so fast? But they don’t question the younger man and how come he advanced so fast. When a woman moves ahead, it’s “diversity pick.” That’s the first thing that always comes out of their mouth.”
As young as Pierson is, she’s not alone among women grad students noticing such attitudes.
Which goes to show that engineering is not just about math, science, numbers and problem solving. It’s also about people, a subject that should be covered more in today’s engineering classes.