Women as engineers – encouraging and engaging students earlier

Women as engineers – encouraging and engaging students earlier
October 13, 2020

An interview with mechanical engineer and entrepreneur, Katelyn Sweeney

Mechanical engineer and entrepreneur, Katelyn Sweeny is pretty convinced that everybody has an internal venture with which they’re born. As a child visiting the Kennedy Space Center on a vacation to Florida, Sweeny was appalled when she learned the astronauts didn’t have a snack pocket on their space suit.

She was drawn in and became accustomed to her brain looking to improve things. As a child, she was often outside inventing things instead of doing her math homework.

“I started to struggle in classes, but I still felt inventive. I just was getting discouraged by the fact that that wasn’t translating to how well I was doing in middle school. So I kind of shifted my focus,” says Sweeney. She aspired instead to be an actress or lawyer where she had more freedom to write and think. Math didn’t welcome her creativity, she says.

She was accidently put into an engineering class in high school and fell in love.

“We talked about how to engineer roller coasters and like what goes into the animatronics theme parks,” she says. “And all of a sudden we were talking about all this cool engineering stuff that hadn’t even occurred to me, what the point of all the math homework was.”

Fostering creative thinking in school

Sweeney reflects on how difficult it can be to foster creativity in a system that trains toward excelling at standardized tests.

“It’s the way that schools measure their success. And I think we’re entering into an age where we have a lot more technology, and I don’t think that necessarily needs to be true anymore,” says Sweeney.

Sweeney’s engineering class that brought her back to loving math was an elective.

Finding a career pathway

Sweeney always wanted to help people and was accepted into MIT as a pre-med student. On a grant, Sweeney worked at a hospital in Uganda and was asked to help fix some machines at the local engineering school. By shadowing and supporting the technicians, Sweeney realized her skill set was in engineering and switched majors.

The invention mindset truly helped Sweeney follow her curiosity and led her into engineering. “I never lost that desire to help people, even after switching from premed to engineering. That was something that I really sought to find and something I actually kind of struggled to find for a while,” says Sweeney.

After beginning an internship with SpaceX, Sweeney still struggled to find the human connection in her engineering work. She was eventually approached by One Lab, a company working on satellite connectivity, which opened the door to apply spacecraft technology to humanity applications.

“There’s all sorts of things going on in the world of aerospace now that have to do with earth imagery for climate change monitoring and Human Rights Watch. Just so much happening to bring that final frontier back to an earth focus, which has been so fun to be a part of,” says Sweeney.

Being female in a male dominated industry

“I’m standing on the shoulders of giants for the women who came before me and have done so much of the legwork to make the workplace more welcoming. And the men, too, who’ve worked to create equity in the workplace,” says Sweeney. “There are definitely still gaps and a lot of work to be done. But I’m really thankful, at least in my career, I have never had a bad experience.”

Sweeney reflects on feeling really alone in high school in robotics and engineering spaces. With the help of mentors, Sweeney has worked to dissolve her sense of other-ism. She thanks her first engineering teacher, Mr. Scott, for helping her break down barriers and get her involved.

“There’s a lot of legwork still to be done in terms of gender equity in the workplace and in engineering education, but I think breaking down that barrier of other-ism for women is really important. That’s what I try to engage the students I work with, both on the robotics team and through other programs, to help them understand how to get over that sense of other-ism and how to engage their peers in a way that helps them break down that barrier.”

Inspiring students to enroll

“I think oftentimes there is this sort of subconscious bias that exists about what careers women are geared towards. And it’s I have to reiterate, it’s not a conscious sexism thing. It’s just those are the roles that women have historically had. And a lot of people in older generations don’t necessarily associate engineers with women,” says Sweeney. “As an educator, breaking down that internal barrier in yourself in order to identify creativity and analytical skills as good traits of an engineer or even just students who are curious is really important.”

Sweeney points out that we all understand how important representation is, especially for women and for people of color. She urges educators in the field to be an advocate for them. She thinks we aren’t tapping into the potential of so many people due to a lack of engagement.

The power of invention education

“We as engineers are tasked with creating a better world than the one we found. I think the only way we can do that is through engaging everybody because we all share this planet and making sure that we have a wide array of opinions and feedback and thoughts,” says Sweeney.

“Innovation inherently is interdisciplinary. And I think we can be tapping into that better way earlier in the pipeline. The power of invention education is sort of accessing all of those opinions that we need in order to solve the problem way earlier than the problem actually starts.”

This summary was produced as part of the Invention Education: Portraits, Strategies, Starting Points podcast series.

The STEM Learning Ecosystems Community of Practice and the Lemelson Foundation have partnered to bring you this series of critical conversations on the importance of invention education.

Katelyn SweeneyKatelyn Sweeney, mechanical engineer and entrepreneur

Katelyn’s lifelong passions are not only to create cool products, but also to increase global STEM equity and enable education for all. In her spare time, she mentors an all-girl high school robotics team in Palo Alto, California. She was also a member of the 2013 Lemelson-MIT inventeam that developed a search and rescue robot for their local fire department.

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