At a young age, Deidra Hodges was well-positioned to become an engineer. Her parents were educators and her older brothers worked with technology, constantly fixing things around the house. Wanting to be like her siblings, Hodges signed up for her high school’s electronics class.
But the teacher said she couldn’t take it.
“He told me to go take choir instead,” Hodges says.
After her mom visited the principal’s office, Hodges was allowed into the class as the only girl — and prospered. The teacher became her mentor and soon enough, she was entering national electronics competitions.
Today, Professor Hodges is chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing (CEC). She is one of many women from CEC who are leading the way in engineering.
A common stereotype in society says that women are better at "soft skills" like communication and empathy than men; therefore, they are better suited for professions outside of engineering.
Darlene Fernandez ‘06 is one woman who is flipping that stereotype on its head.
In March, Fernandez was appointed executive director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. She is using her knack for communication along with her civil engineering experience to implement the needs of Miami-Dade commuters while leading an interdisciplinary team of engineers.
"I believe that women’s ability to communicate and interact effectively combined with a strong technical background can take them very far,” Fernandez says. “We just need to build up young women's confidence and self-esteem first so they know they can do this job.”
Fernandez says programs that introduce young people to engineering, like FIU’s Engineers on Wheels, are vital to getting more women into the profession.
“A lot of young women say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be in an office all day. Is there anything else women engineers can do?’” Fernandez says. “If you show them what women engineers do who are 10 to 15 years out of school, then it becomes easier to understand how hands-on this profession can be."
Naomi Lowe is one student at CEC who interacted with engineering at a young age. She was brought to the profession by a program at her high school. Lowe continued on with it and is now a mechanical engineering senior and a driver for Panther Motorsports.
"For me, I just like how engineering is a way to apply and create your thoughts,” Lowe says.
This early experience is now leading to a promising career. In August, Lowe will be conducting data acquisition for motor emissions as an intern for FEV North America, Inc.
“Making things better motivates me,” Lowe says. "Our pollution problem and greenhouse gas problem are things that I want to work on.”
"If the opportunity is out there, it means it's there for you to take. If you're intimidated, it means it's worth taking."
While learning about engineering at an early age is helpful, some women at FIU are beginning from no experience and finding rockstar-level success.
Take senior mechanical engineering major Alexandra Berkova. She was studying English when she first came to FIU. The first-generation student switched to engineering after hearing more about it from a friend.
Today, she is a member of a three-woman team that won Schneider Electric’s Go Green for North America, a continental-wide clean energy competition. She and her teammates are prototyping a seawater battery that will use sodium from the ocean instead of lithium, a scarce material used in many of today's batteries.
“Once I started working in more technical roles, I realized that being an engineer is not as difficult as it’s made out to be,” Berkova says. “People say ‘Oh, rocket science.' But it's just math and science. It's not something you get overnight. You have to build to it.”