It’s not unusual that a gender may be assigned to a certain field of study or occupation. Not too long ago—and for some people even today—lawyers and doctors were men and teachers and nurses were women. One of those fields where women and minorities are still chipping the glass is engineering.
A 2013 report by the U.S. Census Bureau indicated a decline from 1990 to 2011 of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) occupations. The decline is attributed to less women in engineering and computer-related fields, both of which make up about 80 percent of STEM occupations. In 2011, there were about 7.2 million people working in STEM occupations, which was six percent of the U.S. workforce. Of those working in the STEM workforce, women made up only 26 percent, while Hispanics accounted for a total of seven percent.
While there are still some college majors and occupations that are dominated by either men or women, this isn’t to say that this will remain a constant. One of those who is helping to break the glass ceiling and who will soon be working as an engineer is Erica Kellenberger.
Kellenberger was first featured as a Student of the Week in 2009 when she was a senior at Ralston Valley High School. She is now entering the next phase of her life as she is soon to graduate from the Colorado School of Mines. La Voz asked her then what future career she would like to have, she said, “renewable resource engineer.” She will do just that as she has accepted a job as a production engineer for BHP Billiton’s petroleum sector.
“I wanted to do engineering because I actually wanted to make a difference. Ever since I was a kid, that was something that always has interested me,” Kellenberger said. Interest her it did so much so that she took a couple of internships, one with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the other with Shell Oil Company where, she says, “there is a lot that oil companies are doing with the renewable energy side.”
Kellenberger spoke about her interest with renewable energy and said that though she was “hesitant about working with an oil company,” she got to learn a lot, for example, about Shell’s renewable energy projects like its wind farms.
She will start her position at BHP Billiton in Texas in September. While she admits that “it’s kind of nerve-wracking because I’ve lived in Colorado my whole life,” Kellenberger is more than ready to take on the challenge. Still, she is aware of the disparities in engineering. “Coming to engineering, I think I was very intimidated of the male dominated industry. I had to overcome being a woman in the industry.” She noted how there were times when her male classmates took up the “leadership role” and how they were the ones to raise their hand and ask questions.
Statistical data, such as the one provided by the Census Bureau, indicate that minorities are falling behind in STEM. This is also something that Kellenberger is aware of. “It’s amazing to see the interest that students have. I think it’s sad that it’s not necessarily encouraged from what I experienced in high school,” she said. Yet, she said, it’s important to try to “encourage [students] to take those math and science classes even if it’s not something they want to continue doing.”
La Voz asked her about her own experience at the Colorado School of Mines. “I have absolutely loved it. It is challenging so definitely, but I think it’s something not impossible. There are some student who are A students, 4.0, they don’t have to study. For me,” she said laughingly, “that is not the case.” She said she was able to experience camaraderie because of her participation with school organizations such as the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers, “both of these groups have been wonderful in helping me,” she said. Kellenberger is also the vice president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the drum major for the marching band at school.
For Kellenberger, her life focus hasn’t really been about herself, but rather about helping others. She still volunteers with Royal Family Kids Camp. She traveled to Peru as part of the school’s music department where she engaged in “engineering and music service projects.” She also traveled to Guatemala through her church. “We were helping build a school in the San Cristóbal region so that was really good to give back,” she said. “I think that is the most important thing that I can do — to give back. In all reality all I do in school and my accomplishments only benefit me, but me giving back has a domino effect.”