Calling all girls! Learn engineering!

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For many years girls were discouraged from pursuing careers in engineering. Ask those who ignored the advice why, they really can’t remember.

“I just knew this was what I wanted to do, so I went for it. The message here is, you can be what you want to be,” said Jean Savage, vice president of the Advanced Components and Systems Division at Caterpillar Inc. “We have female engineers all over the world because it is important to us to have diversity of thought.”

Savage expressed those thoughts just before she spoke to about a few hundred middle school girls Tuesday at the Caterpillar Visitors Center. The event was the third annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, sponsored by the Caterpillar Women's Initiative Network, at which the company discussed ways to get involved in engineering. The students, who came from schools throughout central Illinois, participated in various engineering activities and toured the Caterpillar Visitors Center.

Savage said she became interested in electrical engineering in grade school, but heard then and all through high school that girls can’t be engineers. She went into the military out of high school so she could pay her way through college and was told she’d never make in the military.

“I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t listen,” she said. “Hey, people are people. We are all going to have different personalities whether we’re girls or boys, but a lot of time girls don’t feel they get a chance. We want to make sure they see what’s out there.”

One 14-year-old from Washington already has seen what’s out there and she wants to be part of it in the future.

Kristine Leas has spent a lot of time at Morton Industries with her father, an engineer there, and has seen the different aspects of the company at work. She knows that it takes engineering to make it happen and she wants to learn. “My dad takes me to his shop and I get on the safety goggles and everything so I can see it and learn it, including welding. So when I was one of the few who was picked to come here today, it was amazing,” she said.

Kristine was showing off a bridge she made during one of the activities. She built it from straws, paper clips and tape in less than 15 minutes. “It’s kind of lopsided in one spot but we had to work with what we had. It was fun,” she said.

Kristine said she hasn’t decided yet where to she wants to go to college or what type of engineering she wants to do.

That’s not the case with Emily Capitelli, 13, a student at Calvin Coolidge School in Peoria. She plans on becoming an “imaginer” with Disney after going to whichever college she determines will be best to get her there. For starters, she hopes to get into the college prep course at Richwoods High School.

“I have always wanted to be an engineer. I heard engineers could work on roller coasters. That’s a passion of mine,” Emily said.

Emily was told by her parents, both service coordinators for charitable organizations, to decide at an early age whether she wanted to be an engineer, a lawyer or a doctor. Besides designing roller coasters, she said, she figured out engineers can design and build many things. “I made the decision. That’s what I want to do,” she said.

After seeing the various machines and processes Caterpillar engineers can design, Emily said that while she found it interesting, “it doesn’t change my chosen career path.”

Savage, the Caterpillar vice president, said the company needs STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) graduates. The numbers of students graduating with degrees in those disciplines have been declining since 2003, she added. “We will need to fill positions in the future. It’s important we start now to get these students interested,” she said.

Caterpillar held the Introduce a Girl to Engineering event at several locations Tuesday and Wednesday, including Aurora, Milwaukee and Wuxi, China. The event was held earlier in Decatur. All told nearly 1,000 middle-school aged girls of 12 to 14 were invited to participate, including 480 in central Illinois, said spokesperson Barbara Cox.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).