Podcast: FY19 President Penny Wirsing Talks to FIU Professor Karen Schmahl

FY19 President of the Society of Women Engineers Penny Wirsing talks to Florida International University Professor Karen Schmahl.
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Welcome to Diverse, the podcast of the Society of Women Engineers. SWE supports the advancement of women in engineering and technology. You can find all of our podcasts on SoundCloudiTunes, and Stitcher.

Hi, I’m Penny Wirsing, FY19 President of the Society of Women Engineers, and this is SWE’s Diverse podcast. Please remember to add this podcast to your iTunes and like or follow us on social media. Visit swe.org for more details.

Joining me now is Dr. Karen Schmahl, a professor of engineering at Florida International University. She has a Ph.D. in industrial engineering, and she is a SWE member. Her career in engineering spans more than 35 years. In her current role, she is focused on making online engineering programs engaging for students at FIU.

Thanks for joining us, Karen.

Why did you go into engineering?
I think my earliest influences came from my parents who recognized my strengths in math and science and encouraged my study in engineering.

Some of the research I read several years ago indicated that most young women went into engineering because someone significant in their life encouraged them to do so. For me, it was my mom. The way that I explained it to my daughters is that engineers use math and science to solve problems and help people. Since my younger daughter enjoyed her math and science classes she became an engineer.

Why did you decide to go into teaching?
When I was working on my master’s degree, I had the opportunity to teach and realized I enjoyed figuring out how to help students understand complex problems. I also enjoyed hearing about professors’ real-world engineering experiences, so I spent time in the industry before pursuing my Ph.D. and going into academics.

Why are you focused on online engineering programs?
In 2000, I developed some of the early techniques in interactive online lectures. I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with ways to make my online classes more engaging for students. I am just as excited about teaching online as I am about teaching in person, and on making the classes engaging. I appreciate that online programs allow students more access to earn engineering degrees.

With my industry experience in both quality management/engineering and engineering economic analysis, my students can see how my courses relate to the “real world.”

How did you get involved with the Society of Women Engineers?
I didn’t join SWE when I was in college. I thought, I’m an engineer—not a woman engineer! It wasn’t until later that I saw the value of having support from an organization like SWE.

I was the first female in engineering on faculty at Miami University in Ohio back in the 1990s and became the advisor for the student SWE chapter.  The chapter focused on community outreach and we bridged SWE, the Girl Scouts and the university to create an engineering day for girls, which is still running to this day. As a SWE member, I’ve presented papers at the annual conference. When I took the position at Florida International University six years ago, I was glad to see the FIU SWE student chapter is also very active in outreach activities.

How has engineering education changed over the last three decades of your career?
There’s now a good sprinkling of women as professors and it is no longer unusual for women to be in professional engineering roles. Even though there are more role models for girls, we still need more engineering awareness. There are still some challenges out there, but I don’t think there are as many challenges as there used to be. There’s nothing that can really hold you back except yourself.

My biggest motivation in teaching is my students. I love hearing back from them when they tell me that although my classes were very challenging they really learned useful material that they are able to apply in their current careers.

What advice do you have for young women interested in engineering?
It’s important to spread the word about engineering to young people, especially girls. I feel strongly, that at the 5th to 6th grade level, girls (and boys) start deciding if they like math or science. Math books don’t explain that engineering is used to solve problems. From the 1970s to late 1990s the proportion of women in medicine went up to about the 50 percent range and stayed there. The proportion of women earning engineering degrees increased to the 20 to 25 percent range and remains there today. This is why I feel so strongly about raising awareness of the field.

Dr. Karen Schmahl is a professor of engineering at Florida International University. Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

I’m Penny Wirsing, for all of us as SWE, thanks for listening.