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VIDEO: Two Female Engineering Grads Forging Their Own Paths

By Keith Pierce

When Madelyn Burnett was in sixth grade, she thought mathematics was easy for everyone. It wasn't until a teacher told her that she had extraordinary skills that she even considered following a path toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The civil and environmental engineering major never thought that years later, she would have a job as a project engineer even before graduating from Old Dominion University in May.

"When I was in school I loved my woodworking classes and all the hands-on stuff," Burnett said. "So, to be able to work as a project engineer will be really nice because I'll be in the field and actually be able to not just look at plans, but actually see the plans and the construction process as things are being built. I love that."

Even as a child, Ashley Newman knew she wanted to be an engineer. Her father bought her an electrical circuit for her birthday one year, hoping to inspire her to pursue his path and become an electrical engineer. Though Newman didn't choose electrical engineering, her father was just as proud to see her excel in mechanical engineering. Of course, it didn't hurt that she minored in electrical engineering technology or that the Perry Honors College graduate managed to maintain a high-enough GPA to be a member of Tau Beta Pi, the oldest engineering honor society and the second-oldest collegiate honor society in the United States.

"It is definitely important to let girls know that STEM is an option for them," Newman said. "Girls are still underrepresented in engineering. My dad made it clear to me at a very young age that I could be whatever I wanted, whether it's engineering or something else, there are no limits. I admit, though, that he really wanted me to be an electrical engineer, but said I could be whatever I wanted. Not all girls have a parent pushing them in that direction."

While women make up 49 percent of the college-educated workforce nationwide, only 14 percent are practicing engineers. Like many universities, Old Dominion works with K-12 institutions, as well as organizations such as the Girls Scouts of America and other girls clubs, to increase awareness and familiarize girls as young as elementary school with engineering career opportunities.

"We spend a lot of time coming up with ways to engage with girls long before they are in college," said Carol Considine, assistant dean for outreach in the Batten College of Engineering and Technology. "Whether that's through Girl-E Day, which happens during National Engineers Week, or throughout the year when we're hosting elementary, middle and high school girls for tours and events, we want to eradicate the misconceptions about women's ability to pursue STEM careers."

Considine stresses that the importance goes beyond equality.

"Women solve problems differently, they approach problems differently, they think about how to solve problems differently," she said. "A great example is an airbag. The engineers that designed an airbag were men, and they didn't consider the size of women or children in cars. So, airbags cause fatalities because the men only considered the design for men."

Newman has an internship this summer with Newport News Shipbuilding and plans to return to ODU in the fall to pursue her master's degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering. Burnett begins her new job at Leebcor Services, an engineering construction firm based in Williamsburg, this summer.

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