The earlier the better

An introduction to engineering as a potential career turns out to be one of the best ways to sustain the profession … and the economy

Aimee Fraser is a grade 12 student at St. Patrick's Catholic High School in Sarnia. She participated in a FIRST Robotics League event held at Lambton Mall in early March.

When people talk about engineering, especially if they life in Sarnia-Lambton, there’s a better than average chance that they actually know someone who’s actually an engineer, a member of the Professional Engineers Ontario, the licensing and regulating body in the province.

And while the region has one of Canada’s highest concentrations of professional engineers in Canada, the executive of PEO Lambton have a goal of seeing that number increase.

That goal is largely based on the fact that in order for the economy to flourish, engineers are an essential element in the early stage of development in just about any industry—and not just the petrochemical sector for which Sarnia-Lambton may be best known.

Jennifer Ladenchuk, a structural engineer who serves as director of Education Outreach on the PEO Lambton executive, makes the point that a student who knows an engineer is far more likely to at least consider the profession.

It’s a big reason why she and her colleagues on the executive have taken on a number of activities, most if not all of them geared to reaching students at an early age.

Some of those activities, like “Go Eng Girl,” an initiative of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering, are clearly built on a foundation of encouraging females to consider a profession that remains dominated by males. While the number of women in the profession has been increasing by about 1 percent a year since 2008, there is still a considerable gender gap, with women (more than 50 percent of the population) now accounting for just 12.8 percent of practising professional engineers in Canada, according to Engineers Canada.

David Woodill, who works as an electrical engineer at Langtree Controls, has a leadership role in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization formed by legendary inventor Dean Kamen, perhaps best known for the Segway (although he also invented the world’s first drug infusion pump and a portable dialysis machine).

FIRST will turn 30 this year and it still holds to Kamen’s original vision: if you get kids excited about science (and, by extension, engineering) at an early age, they’re more likely to take that passion through to university.

“It’s our collective future,” notes Woodill.

Branches of FIRST, which include FIRST Lego League and FIRST Robotics Challenge, while geared to a different age group, tend to build on the interests of kids as they’re growing up, but all designed to accomplish the same end result—getting science and engineering “on the list” of careers a youngster is likely to at least consider for their future.

Woodill says PEO Lambton, which sponsors FIRST Lego and FIRST Robotics Challenge, is getting close to seeing the first students who became involved in one or more of the programs graduate as a career engineer.

One of those happens to be Woodill’s own son, who is in his third year of a computer engineering program at McMaster University.

Along the way, Adam Woodill recruited a friend who is in engineering at Western University in London and who has worked as a coop student at Langtree Controls.

“We’re starting to see fruit,” says Woodill, referring to the Chinese proverb that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago—and the second-best time is today.

“When I look at the number of students that have been involved in these programs, we’ve ‘graduated’ or influenced at least 12 or more students to go into engineering over the years,” he said.

Woodill says that while there are quite a few girls who participate on the FIRST teams, he hopes emphasizing the value of equality and, perhaps just as important, the building of various “soft” skills that are essential in any business, will pay off in the long run.

“FIRST is not just about engineering,” he says. “It’s about breaking through a wall into a realization that you need a business model, and that means developing marketing and everything else that’s associated with that, including community outreach and connectivity. It’s a big envelope that has room for everyone.”

Through FIRST, young people are learning how to positively interact with others, which is part of the culture that Woodill says that students will carry with them throughout their career.

“It’s about acquiring practical skills in being able to complete something, to focus on what’s needed, set priorities and meet deadlines, things like how do we think this is going to work,” he adds.

FIRST is also something that transcends the traditional team aspect of school, which might be heavily weighted toward athletics.

“There’s power in that,” says Woodill. “Whatever is engrained in the human psyche, it’s being part of a team that has influence when it comes to belonging.”

Woodill says he’s seen it happen: a student who would typically get themselves in trouble, then becomes part of a team and ends up being a mentor.

“We’ve seen the behavior shift,” says Woodill. “The kid thinks ‘I’ve never thought of myself like that. Now maybe I can go to college.’”

FIRST and its extensions aren’t the only area that PEO Lambton is engaging the next generation.

Lauren Verwegen, a mechanical engineer working at WorleyParsons, is overseeing two initiatives, Mathletics and Kangaroo Math, both geared to investing in helping young people see the value (and fun) of an essential element in how the world works.

Verwegen, who moved to Sarnia-Lambton in 2015, took on Mathletics shortly thereafter, gradually putting her own spin on the one-day event, including moving it to a Saturday in November. Great Lakes Secondary School has hosted Mathletics for the last two years.

Students, who are in grades 5 to 8, are given a clicker device and while the questions are not timed, once 75 percent have answered a question that first appears on the auditorium screen, the answer is revealed.

“Maybe it’s a concept they haven’t learned yet, so we take up the answer with them,” says Verwegen.

The objective, she says, is twofold: to demonstrate that there’s a purpose to math beyond the very simple addition of numbers and to introduce the idea of engineering as a possible career.

“We want to show them that this is how you use math to solve a problem,” adds Verwegen, who acknowledges that awareness of the PEO Lambton chapter is also a key goal.

“We’re getting the word out.”

Kangaroo Math, which is in written, multiple choice form, has been adopted by PEO Lambton, is organized as a non-profit in Canada and around the world (it was established in 1991 by two French math professors, although a similar concept was used in the Australian Mathematics Competition which began in 1978.

Students participating are from grades 1 to 12 and those competing will eventually be ranked by participants from around the world, with an awards program taking place in June.

PEO Lambton has partnered with Lambton College this year, which provided space for the Sunday March 24 event, held at the college. PEO Lambton members help with logistics and overseeing the contest.

Another key event is Go ENG Girl, with PEO Lambton partnering with Western University’s engineering department for the last two years to host at the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park.

Held on a Saturday in October, the event attracted several dozen girls from grade 7-10 who took part in various hands-on activities, took a tour of the Research Park, and found out about mentoring opportunities.

Katherine Albion, a PhD chemical engineering graduate from Western and now executive director of the Research Park, was keynote speaker at last year’s event.

Discovery Day, which also takes place in March as part of Engineering Month, serves as another opportunity for young people to be connected to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) in an interesting and fun way. Sponsors of the event, held at Lambton Mall, have display space at which they provide a fun activity—and youngsters get a “passport” stamp as proof of participation.

Put together, the various events and initiatives of PEO Lambton are intended to not only help sustain interest in the profession but also underscore the importance of engineering as being key to continued prosperity for Canada and Sarnia-Lambton in particular.

Remember that Chinese proverb about the best time to plant a tree being 20 years ago—and the second-best time being today.

The members of PEO Lambton are taking that admonition to heart when it comes to the future growth of the profession.

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