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Encouraging girls to get involved in engineering

February 28, 2023 | Grant Schulte | community, OPPD employees, outreach
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OPPD engineers met with students on Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day to encourage them to consider pursuing education and careers opportunities in the field. Photo by Grant Schulte

The pitch was simple: How would you like a high-paying, well-respected career where you can solve important problems, travel if you like, work from home if you prefer, and still have plenty of time for family, friends and relaxation?

It turns out engineers have a lot of job options. But as 100-plus girls from Omaha Public Schools recently learned, the industry has one glaring problem: it needs more women.

To try to address the disparity, OPPD joined a coalition of government agencies and businesses to encourage Omaha-area girls to pursue engineering.

“If you want to go to college for four years, if you want a good-paying job, engineering is for you,” said Jené Reese, an engineer and senior account executive at OPPD.

Omaha Public Schools kicked off its first Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day at Westview High School on Feb. 23, giving the young women a chance to try hands-on activities and interact directly with engineers. The event drew students from Westview, North High School and Buffett Middle School, ranging in age from sixth grade to high school seniors.

The gathering, and others like it, are part of OPPD’s efforts to create a stronger and more diverse workforce, especially in fields that don’t tend to attract as many women. Women comprise roughly 46% of the current U.S. workforce, but only 15% of engineers.

Sharing their journeys

OPPD engineers shared their career journeys with the students, recounting how they landed in their chosen fields and the different, intriguing challenges they face daily.

Addressing the students at the beginning of the event, Reese recounted a 13-year career at OPPD with a lot of interesting turns. She started as a nuclear engineer, then became a design engineer and procurement engineer before becoming a project manager. She helped build substations for Google and Facebook and works directly with large employers to help meet their specific electricity needs.

“You can translate your skills and problem-solving abilities to almost any job, and your engineering degree shows you’re able to learn,” Reese said.

Reese is president of OPPD’s Women’s Network, which partnered with OPPD’s Society of Engineers (OSE) on the event.

Hands-on experience

Students rotated among classrooms for the event, sampling different engineering specialties. In OPPD’s classroom, they powered on light bulbs using hand pedals and cranks and tinkered with small electric motors.

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Students use a hand crank that produces electricity to light two bulbs – one regular and one energy efficient. The energy-efficient bulb offered much lower resistance on the crank. Photo by Grant Schulte

It all resonated with Jozlyn Thomas, an 18-year-old senior at Omaha North High Magnet School, and her classmate, 17-year-old Axton Jacobs.

Thomas said engineering had intrigued her ever since sixth grade, while Jacobs was leaning toward a medical field.

“I’m still interested in it, and I love coming to these events,” Thomas said.

Ava Rodriguez, a 16-year-old Omaha North sophomore, grinned as she lit up two light bulbs _ one regular and one energy efficient _ with a special hand-crank that produced electricity. The energy-efficient bulb offered much lower resistance on the crank.

“I just wanted to see what it was all about,” said Rodriguez, who is interested in machining and is considering college options at the University of Nebraska.

Connecting with students

OPPD has several outreach programs designed for students, including Electricity 101, started by OSE, and the Marshmallow Challenge, sponsored by OSE. Those programs introduce students to the basics of electricity and encourage team work and innovative thinking. OSE also participates in the annual Careers in Energy, which encourages high school students to explore careers in energy and utilities.

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Students use small electric motors to power lights during the Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day event. Photo by Grant Schulte

“These types of educational outreach programs help plant early seeds of interest in engineering, and more broadly in STEM,” said John Kelly, an engineer and senior account executive who is also chair of OSE.

The outreach efforts give OPPD the chance to work with female students, show them the kinds of options and opportunities they have, and encourage them to pursue a career path in engineering – a path that could one day lead to a job with OPPD.

“We want them to know a career in engineering is a viable option, and frankly, a lucrative one,” he said.

Kelly was a contractor at Fort Calhoun Station in 2009 before joining the design department in 2014 as a weld engineer in maintenance. In 2017, he transferred to Technical Services, and he became an account executive in early 2018. He serves on the city council in Fort Calhoun and is also involved with the annual Fort Calhoun Science Fair.

And, he said, as the father of three young daughters – ages 7, 5 and 3 – he also has a personal interest in helping girls and young women learn about and get involved in STEM fields.

A group effort

The event also featured presentations from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Metropolitan Utilities District, the University of Nebraska Omaha, Valmont Industries and the engineering firm Olsson Associates.

Along with Reese and Kelly, OPPD employees who helped with the event were Christene Bywater, Sonja Golembiewski, Danelle Sobbing, Michelle Stolinski, Shonda McCain, Carol Waszak, Cory Rosenblad, Poom Pavavicharn and Pat Tooles.

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About Grant Schulte

Grant Schulte joined OPPD as a content generalist in 2022. He is a former reporter for The Associated Press, where he covered the Nebraska Legislature, state politics and other news for a global audience. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a proud Hawkeye. In his free time he enjoys running, reading, spending time with his wife, and all things aviation.

View all posts by Grant Schulte >

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