Engineering camp inspires change of heart for student

Sharon Waxmonsky wanted nothing to do with engineering. That was before she attended Penn State's Making the Machine (MTM) Camp for girls.

As a high school student, Waxmonsky loved the TV show "Trading Spaces" and dreamed of being an interior designer. Although her father, Ronald Waxmonsky, was an engineer, she was afraid it would be too difficult and didn't want to be labeled a "geek."

The elder Waxmonsky, a Penn State alumnus, respected his daughter's decision not to enter the profession but encouraged her to attend Penn State's MTM summer camp for girls.

"She had an aptitude for math and science, and I thought it would be a good thing for her to do," he said.

The outreach camp, for pre-college girls in grades 9 through 12, provides career experiences in multi-disciplinary engineering fields, including chemical, architectural, electrical, aerospace and bioengineering. Each discipline is offered in a one-day module, and girls can choose to attend one day of camp, several days or the entire week.

Sharon Waxmonsky was less than excited for a week of engineering camp.

"I kept telling my friends, 'I don't want to go.' I wasn't enthused about it at all," she remembered.

When the high schooler arrived at camp on Sunday afternoon, she did not find the girls with thick-glasses and less than mediocre social skills she had pictured. She found a new group of friends.

Through the week, the girls bonded over the trials and triumphs of various engineering activities.
"We did a bunch of projects. We built a heart monitor when I was there. It inspired me to go into bioengineering," Waxmonsky said.

According to camp coordinator Cheryl Knobloch, examples of past projects include constructing an optical microscope and designing a one-of-a-kind amusement park rollercoaster. She continually endeavors to dispel the myth that engineering is purely technical.

"What many people don't understand is that engineering can be creative. If I choose to do a day of bioengineering, which is a very technical, I will switch to architectural engineering the next day," Knobloch explained. "They get to see the dichotomy and how diverse engineering can be."

Knobloch, who has served as the associate director of the Women in Engineering Program (WEP) for the past seven years, has a unique, three-part formula for success. Every day, MTM campers visit career sites, get hands-on experience with dynamic projects and receive guidance from role models: specially selected upperclassmen from WEP.

She believes the world benefits from having female engineers.

"We need women at the table. Engineers solve problems by creating diverse teams of engineers. We are pulling together all the powers that be to optimize the solutions and to be inclusive of all ideas."

Knobloch's enthusiasm is contagious; Sharon Waxmonsky can attest to that.

"Cheryl is pretty persuasive. She kept telling us, 'You can do anything. Women in engineering are awesome.'"

Ronald Waxmonsky was a little uneasy when he picked his daughter up from camp.

"She said, 'You know Dad, maybe I do want to be an engineer. Maybe I'll give it a try. And I think I want to go to Penn State,'" he recalled.

He had a good reason to be nervous. Through the Michigan Education Trust he had already paid for his daughter's education. But there was a catch: the pre-purchased tuition plan could only be used at public universities or colleges in Michigan.

That fall, Waxmonsky applied to four schools — Kettering, the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State — and was granted early admission to every one.

The two Waxmonskys made a list of pros and cons for each school. Michigan State had a strong bioengineering program, and Kettering offered her sizable scholarship. Aside from the cost, Penn State was far from home and the bioengineering department, while world renowned, was small and selective. Despite all of these factors, Penn State won out.

"She's there because the Women in Engineering Program sold her. They convinced her she could succeed there," Ronald Waxmonsky said.

The younger Waxmonsky was indeed impressed with the support system for women in engineering at Penn State. Now a first-year student in bioengineering, she is a member of the Society of Women Engineers and the Phi Sigma Rho engineering sorority. She also attends "WEP Wednesdays," weekly meetings where women in engineering can network and help each other with homework

Waxmonsky has some heartening words for girls considering a career in the traditionally male-dominated field.

"Companies look for women in engineering because they want diverse opinions. Don't ever think you can't do it. There are plenty of people to support you."

This year's MTM Camp for high school girls will be held June 29 to July 3. For more information or to register, visit www.engr.psu.edu/wep or call (814) 863-1080. Deadline for registration is May 22.

 

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Last Updated March 19, 2009