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MechSE alumni inspire high school girls at GAMES camp

8/27/2014

Meredith Staub

MechSE alumni Alison Smith and Melanie Willi.
MechSE alumni Alison Smith and Melanie Willi.
MechSE alumni Alison Smith and Melanie Willi.
Held on the U of I’s engineering campus, Girls’ Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (GAMES) provides a week-long summer camp experience for high school girls, sponsored by Women in Engineering.

Participants can choose from many "tracks" of the camp, each with a different subject such as computer science, aerospace engineering, or materials science. MechSE hosted the popular Girls Building Awesome Machines (GBAM) track, in which the girls spent the week constructing wind turbines and learning about mechanical engineering. Most of the activities were held in Mechanical Engineering Laboratory.

Two successful MechSE alumni, Alison Smith and Melanie Willi, visited the camp to give short presentations about their careers and answer any questions the campers had. Smith graduated from MechSE in 2000 and now works with Vesuvius, a Champaign-based engineering company that specializes in metal flow. Willi graduated from MechSE in 2011 and has worked for Caterpillar, Inc since graduation.

Many of the questions the girls asked had to do with knowing your path. How do I know what I want to study? How do I know where to look for work or what to do research in? How do I figure out what I want to do?

The answers of Smith, Willi, and MechSE assistant professor Elif Ertekin (a faculty coordinator of the camp) emphasized one vital theme: keep trying new things.

"I don’t think we do a very good job in high schools helping people decide what they want to study," Smith said. "You don’t know what things are going to happen. Or what priorities are going to come up. For someone who’s having trouble deciding, go into a broad field like mechanical engineering, and decide what will be a career and what will be a hobby. I love history, but now it’s just a hobby for me, and I can read books about history and really enjoy them."

"The process is really trying things, trial and error," Ertekin agreed. "I think somehow in my mind I thought that I had to figure out what would be exactly the best path for me, but that’s the exception, not the norm. You just have to get out there and try different things, wiggle your way into finding what you want. Engineering is a big ocean, and there are so many different types of things you can do as an engineer. I think of it as a launch pad to go wherever you want to go."

Willi talked about the rotational development program at Caterpillar, and how that really helped her find her niche.

"Even when I graduated I had no idea what I liked," Willi said. "I liked some classes more than others; I liked materials over signal processing. But once I got into the rotational program, I found that I liked the rotations with signal processing better than the ones with materials! Getting to actually work in different fields and find out what fits my personality was really helpful. So I figured out what I liked by just going into the field and seeing if it was a good fit for me."

The discussion ranged from job satisfaction to managing work and personal life. Smith and Willi described the world of industry honestly and earnestly, and also elaborated on their hobbies and interests outside of work. Ertekin finished with encouragement for the girls.

"Once you get into the program, you can open yourself up to trying new things, joining clubs, getting involved in projects; that’ll really help you define where you want to go," Ertekin said. "You’ll naturally find yourself selecting the things that you like and that’ll put you on the right path. You might take a wrong turn here or there, but you’ll figure it out. When you join an engineering program, you are not closing any doors for the future. You can use it and go anywhere you want to go. Nothing becomes inaccessible."

"Good job for coming to this camp," Smith said to the girls before she left. "Trying stuff out…you’re on the right path!"