University of Iowa professor Keri Hornbuckle teaches courses such as Engineering Problem Solving, Air Pollution Control Engineering, Environmental Engineering, and undergraduate engineering seminars. Since August 2007, she has served as departmental executive officer (DEO) in the UI College of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. This new role allows her a greater opportunity to show young women that engineering at Iowa is about more than math and science—it’s about making a difference.
You are the first female DEO in the UI College of Engineering. Does that add significance to an already important role?
To be the first female DEO is really great. It’s one more sign that women are “infiltrating” the field. In all seriousness, we have more female students going into engineering, and they continue to find their place in the field. I hope that my leadership role can serve as an example for women who pursue an engineering degree.
One of my priorities as civil and environmental engineering DEO is to increase the visibility of the department. Our students and faculty do a lot of interesting things, but often we don’t think about how to tell people this. A group of UI engineering students recently used their graphic design skills to create a web site, www.continentalcrossings.org, that illustrated their work replacing a footbridge in Peru. That kind of story inspires all of us. (See related story.)
What are the keys to recruiting women to engineering?
Students with an interest in math and science can travel numerous academic paths, and competing with those options is difficult. High school students have exposure to professions in the sciences, law, and medicine through science courses, debate teams, and doctor’s visits. They don’t often experience “engineering” content as part of regular life, or do not recognize the presence of engineers in their lives.
What I didn’t understand in high school—what I’m hoping to show current students—is that engineering solves societal problems. Engineers help develop fuel-efficient cars and improve air and water quality. They work with medical doctors to improve various elements of health care. I hope I can help students think about engineering in that way.
A point in our favor: engineers have a short training trajectory. Engineers can secure good jobs with their four-year degree from Iowa. Our students typically get job offers before they graduate—they’re 21, 22, they’re offered starting salaries on average of $55,000, and they’re not carrying a huge debt load when they leave. Most importantly, engineers find their jobs immensely satisfying.
What do you find most inspirational about teaching?
It is fun and interesting to teach future engineers. Our students are very bright and, as a group, thoughtful and generous people. I often notice that our students seem to value the results of their team projects as much as, or more than, their individual scores.
The college touts itself as a place where students become engineers…and something more. What is meant by “something more”?
If an engineering student wants to pursue a love outside of engineering—the arts, a foreign language, history—we provide space in the curriculum to do so. We encourage our students to consider minors in other fields. Also, engineering students have many opportunities for interdisciplinary work. Research life links engineers with experts on the UI health sciences campus; our entrepreneurial students draw upon the expertise of the Tippie College of Business. We are not working within narrowly defined borders. Engineers need to be comfortable in a world of diverse people and interests.
by Christopher Clair