What does an engineer do?

It’s no secret that the face of engineering still has a masculine profile. According to a study by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, women make up only 14 percent of the engineering workforce (as reported by the Daily Journal of Commerce). One of the best ways to ways to attract more women to the profession is to provide mentorship and early role models.

Last year, Portland civil designers Colleen Brehm, Jen Guggenheimer and Alexi Brooks volunteered as co-teachers for the Architecture Foundation of Oregon’s (AFO) Architecture in Schools (AiS) six-week program. They didn’t participate in the program to specifically influence young girls toward the profession, but there’s no doubt that their intelligence, enthusiasm and successful engineering careers were an inspiration.

Each of the three designers taught in third-grade classrooms. “Education has always been really important to me and it’s a personal goal to give education back, so this fits with my personal philosophy,” explains Colleen, who made 2017 her second season with AiS.


Colleen’s first AiS experience landed her in a classroom where 13 out of the 24 students had different first languages, and one refugee had just arrived. “It was eye opening,” Colleen says. She familiarized the multicultural third graders with shapes, scale, how to draw real-life images, and had the students build bridges from recycled materials. Last year, she taught in classroom with a more affluent demographic where the student weren’t facing communication challenges and had many more available resources. These students were already playing parts in fake communities where they learned about economics and trade. Colleen leveraged this and assigned a piece of water resource infrastructure (a wastewater treatment plant, a dam, port, fish hatchery, etc.) to each “community” and created a crisis for the student to resolve. “I specialize in water resources, but some of the questions the kids asked were really amazing, and it became a learning experience for me too.”  Not surprisingly, Colleen will participate in AiS again this year.

Jen Guggenheimer recently moved to Portland and saw AiS as a way to become more involved in local schools and get a feel for the community. “I was excited to discover the classroom had been studying Portland’s history and they were eager to learn about our area’s infrastructure and bridges.”


Jen helped the kids explore different concepts such as tension and compression through their own bodies – they pushed their hands together and pulled them, braced against classmates, and personally felt the forces that are applied to buildings and bridges. Then, they built bridges out of popsicle sticks and tested them for strength. “The kids loved to watch the bridges explode or and were amazed that some could hold 17 encyclopedias in one bucket,” Jen recalls. “I loved to show young kids forces and motion concepts, and expose them to different aspects of engineering early on.”

For Alexi Brooks, AiS allowed her to explore a lifelong interest. “I wanted to be a teacher until my sophomore year in college, when I switched my major to engineering.   “I think it’s also really important to show young people that women are in engineering too – to give them that perception from a very young age that a woman can be an engineer.”

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Alexi taught in Northeast Portland and partnered with the teacher on the AiS curriculum. Alexi first gave students an overview an architect’s and engineer’s roles and what makes structures stand. Then she focused on their own neighborhood. “I wanted to engage them with things they could actually see, so we took a walk around the neighborhood and noted storm drain inlets, green street improvements, stormwater planters, and then went to a park.” Back in the classroom, Alexi had the kids design their own ideal neighborhood.  “It was really rewarding and a fun way to teach,” says Alexi. This year, she’s doing in-class volunteer teaching along with several coworkers through another program, STEM Connect.

These three join many other KPFF civil and structural engineers who have volunteered for AiS in the past. The designers appreciate being in a firm that understands the positive influence these programs offer. “KPFF is totally supportive of us doing this,” says Colleen. “It’s important to get kids excited about the real application of math and science, and it’s essential to show them what options are out there and provide early role models.”

There is still a great need for volunteers for the 2017-2018 school year, see here for information.

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