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Celebrating Engineers Week, Part 1: A Q&A with Katrina Rothrock

To celebrate Engineers Week 2015 and the many ways in which engineering touches our daily lives, we reached out to several exceptional women engineers to learn about their paths to engineering, their roles as mentors, and their advice for students aspiring to STEM careers. Today, we hear from Katrina Rothrock, a UKanTeach Master Teacher at the University of Kansas who started her career as an architectural engineer.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What inspired your early career path as an engineer?
I have always loved math, building things, and doing puzzles, but I had no idea what I might do with those interests.  I was most certainly not going to be an engineer like my father. How boring.  He was a geological civil engineer who studied water resources. As high school graduation approached, I struggled with finding a direction and my parents pushed me to explore various directions, including engineering.  While perusing the mounds of college materials arriving in my mailbox daily, I discovered something I thought might be a perfect fit: architectural engineering.  Yes, it was engineering—but with an artful twist that seemed more attractive.  After several conversations with individuals in the KU School of Engineering, I was sold.
While working as a consulting electrical engineer, I agreed to teach courses as an adjunct professor in the KU Schools of Architecture and Engineering, and realized how much I loved the relationships that teaching allowed me to have with others. I decided to return to school to pursue my master’s in education and after graduating, began teaching high school mathematics with the problem-solving perspective my engineering background had given me.
How has your engineering background influenced how you teach?
As a classroom teacher, my engineering background helped me observe when my teaching wasn’t working, and then creatively consider other possible solutions. When an engineer approaches a “problem,” there is a foundational expectation that a solution does exist, and can be discovered with persistence.  In fact, there is likely more than one solution available, with varying strengths related to cost, efficiency, and breadth of impact. 
While teaching, I became very curious about why our schools educate students the way they do.  I began to wonder what mathematics classes would be like if we taught them differently, with more of a problems-based application approach.  Or if we moved students at varying paces according to their abilities.  Or if we had the opportunity to make the substance of what we were teaching more real, and hopefully more interesting.  That thinking helped shape my approaches to both the subject matter I was teaching and my students.
One of the most important parts of any thinking process is a key component of the engineering design process:  developing possible solutions or pathways to a solution.  During this creative thinking stage, it is important that students are not hindered by judgment regarding the quality of their ideas.  Judgment is the greatest obstacle to productive thinking, whereas brainstorming encourages optimism. Once this optimism is established, and ideas are abundant, multiple solutions and pathways almost always become clear, and a student is on the way to a successful resolution.  It is then, and only then, that analysis of ideas should begin to find the most feasible and successful pathway, in whatever way success needs to be defined for that particular situation. The greatest skills I can try to teach my students are patience, persistence, and self-confidence.  These skills make way for critical thinking processes that can lead to possible solutions, in any area of life.
What kinds of challenges have you had to overcome on your career path?
Honestly, although I was always one of very few females in my engineering courses and in my office, that never seemed like a problem for me.  A few construction site visits to small remote areas gave me a bit of trouble with male construction workers lacking respect for me as the designing engineer and authority, but those issues were always quickly resolved when I stepped forward confidently to explain their role, my role, and my expectations of the work to be completed.
You’re engaged in the community as a mentor and role model for students with an interest in STEM. Why is mentoring important to you?
Mentoring is important because it allows role models to share their passion in addition to their experiences.  Being around someone who loves what they do is contagious, and when a mentor is not only experienced, but also excited to share their interests (and why they love what they do), it is so much more meaningful.
What advice do you give to young people, and particularly young women, who are interested in engineering?
Go for it!  Be realistic about your interests, and spend time exploring options.  And never let people’s concerns about you being a minority in the field ever have anything to do with who you want to be.  Be aware that others might think it could or should cause you problems, and then move on by, perhaps sharing your words of advice on how to overcome those problems!
What do you wish more people knew about engineering?
It turns out, engineering ISN’T boring like I thought when I was in high school, and there are a multitude of variations of what you can do in engineering that I had never heard of.  Engineering is really about solving problems – of any sort.  It is designing a solution after having considered what issues there are, and what resources might be available.  Who doesn’t want to solve problems?