Structural engineer Lisa Laws (who works at the engineering firm URS) has lent her infectious enthusiasm to Project Exploration for several years now, making regular appearances at Sisters4Science sessions. Earlier this year she participated in a Science Digest session devoted to engineering, and joined our annual Outdoor Leadership Retreat – showing students the basics of designing bridges and buildings, and encouraging them to follow their passion.
An active and avid volunteer, in 2011 Lisa was awarded the Pyramid Award of Excellence in recognition of her outreach with Project Exploration, Project SYNCERE, and many other groups in Chicago. Recently she received the Young Alumna Volunteer Award from her alma mater, Tulane University. This summer she will be recognized by the Women’s Transportation Seminar with the Rosa Parks Diversity Leadership Award. She serves as the national chapter representative for the National Society of Black Engineers Women in Science Special Interest Group.
We spoke to Lisa about her experience as a science ambassador to students.
Josh Fox: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience as a volunteer? Where do you volunteer, and how long have you been doing it?
Lisa Laws: Basically I’ve been volunteering since college. I started off with NSBE [National Society of Black Engineers], whose mission is a lot like Project Exploration’s. I did that for four years, starting with in-school programs inNew Orleans, where I went to college. We did after-school tutoring for grade school kids, all the way up to high school kids. We also did Habitat for Humanity after Katrina.
When I came back to Chicago in ’06, basically I started working with Project Exploration first, at Sisters4Science.
I still work with NSBE on Saturdays, teaching physics and engineering to middle school and high school kids with the Trimathlon program. We’ve built roller coasters. We did a pyramid project on potential and kinetic energy. We did bubbles and all these random things.
I’ve done workshops at NSBE regional conferences. My last one was called “Welcome to the Boys Club,” which was basically geared toward young minority women, or just women in general, who are in male-dominant career fields, especially science and engineering. I was just going through the “do’s” and “don’ts” of trying to be successful in a male-dominant field. At the national conference, I was on a panel which talked about how you can have a life and be an engineer at the same time. That’s what I like to tell kids and anyone who’s interested in engineering: “You can have a life and be an engineer at the same time.”
I also work with Project SYNCERE. I do a lot of career panels with them. During the day I’ll leave work and go to the different schools they are having a career panel at, answer questions.
The last one is with a project sponsored by my company, URS. I’m in charge of five schools in the state, and I’ve given them an assignment of a bridge design, with a whole bunch of parameters they have to follow. I’ve been visiting one school a week. They’re going to give me a presentation of what they’ve designed, hopefully with some models and some drawings to go along with it.
JF: It sounds like you spend a lot of time volunteering. Why do you do that? What do you get out of it?
LL: I like spreading the knowledge to kids. I was not one of those kids who didn’t know about engineering or what engineers do, but I’ve learned through Project Exploration that there are a million kids out there who don’t know what we do, and don’t think our careers are attainable. So, I feel like – being an African-American woman who is an engineer – to reach out and spread the knowledge that I have about engineering gives younger children a better chance, better knowledge of what we do. It can give them the belief that it is attainable. That they can do whatever they want.
JF: When you talk to Project Exploration girls about your experience as a woman in the engineering field, what kind of things do you tell them?
LL: I tell them good and bad things. I mean, I think it’s important that they know everything. Because I didn’t know everything when I first started in engineering. I actually started at a construction company. I was starting off as the only female, the only African-American person in my department. And I was, like, 24 years old. I was very young in their eyes. And my job was to tell older Caucasian men what to do all day. [laughs] So, you can imagine the kind of negative response I got. I tell them about that, and tell them, you know, “People are gonna be the way they are, regardless.” I mean, it’s up to them to understand what your purpose and your position is within the company, or within the project you are working in. After a while they realize that you know what you are talking about.
I also talk about accidents we’ve had on site. For instance, we were doing theNorth Avenuebridge and one guy refused to listen to me. I just decided – you’re grown, you’re older than me, you think you know what you’re doing. So, I let him go ahead and do what he thought was right. Which was wrong, and he ended up losing a finger. You know, after that… It doesn’t take a catastrophe like that, but it’s good to know what you are talking about and try to convey it as much as possible, and they’ll learn eventually that you’re right and they’re wrong.
I also talk about the good things about it. Obviously the money is good. It’s true, you don’t have a lot of time, but you can decide how constructive you are with your free time. For instance, I like to volunteer a lot, and I tell friends engineering is fun with all the kids. And I also have a life, I go out, I hang out with my friends – you know I do have friends. So, there is a good side about it, too.
JF: You work with several different groups, and it sounds like the types of kids that you encounter in each group might be a little bit different. Can you characterize Project Exploration’s students and what your experience with them is like?
LL: Sure. I think out of all the groups that I work with – and I’m not just saying this – I feel like the girls that I work with for Sisters4Science are the most inquisitive and well-behaved kids that I work with. I think that’s because they have a choice to be in the program. Some kids that don’t have a choice, aren’t really that interested, or don’t want to pay attention, or do any of the projects. But I know with the Project Exploration girls, they are always super interested in what I’m doing, regardless of if they want to be an engineer or not. Nine times out of time, when I ask around it’s always “I want to be a forensic scientist.” That Lisa [Project Exploration board member and volunteer scientist Lisa Gilbert-Hill] she got to everybody else. [laughs] I want to be a forensic scientist, too, after I talk to her! You know, even if they don’t think they’re interested in what I do, they still pay attention and they’re very open-minded and inquisitive. They’re just awesome girls.
JF: Is there anything that you dream about doing with our students or other students? Anything you would change if you could?
LL: Yeah, I would love for my company to be more supportive and more involved with what I’m doing. My dream would be to have a separate department within my company that specializes in helping out groups such as Project Exploration, Sisters4Science – you know all the groups that I work for. I’m working on it. I just would love to have more people involved, minorities or not, just helping out. Realize that helping out is a good thing, and you feel good about yourself when you’re done. And it gives you something to talk about.