Project Exploration is proud to announce this month’s STEM Professional Spotlight is Juanita Garcia! Juanita has worked with Sisters4Science and Environmental Adventures, and she was kind enough to answer some interview questions below:
Please describe your field of work:
I have over 10 years of experience in the construction industry. I started out designing HVAC systems. I became passionate about green buildings for the benefits to the health of building occupants and the environment. I have gone on to consult on building design and construction technology for LEED/Green buildings. Last year I started my own company focused on advancing 3D virtual building information modeling and collaboration technology for design and construction teams. When teams work together early in the design process, they can reduce construction time and material waste as well as optimize building operations.
- Thinking back to when you started working with Project Exploration, what inspired you to be involved with our students?
In early 2015, I had been reflecting on my experience in the construction industry and how often I was the only woman or person of color on a building design team. I reached out to undergraduate students to recruit for a green building organization but found few women and people of color graduating in architecture, engineering, and construction. To have an impact on diversity in the industry, we need to reach much younger students. If you told 12-year-old Juanita I would be doing what I do now, I wouldn’t have believed it. Changing the face of STEM fields inspires me.
- What do you hope to gain from your work with Project Exploration?
Throughout my career, I’ve had mentors that recognized my potential and gave me opportunities. I hope to encourage Project Exploration students to see themselves in STEM careers.
- Is there a memorable student, activity, or interaction that stands out in your mind?
- What activity did you facilitate and what was the impact to you?
- What has been your favorite activity that you have done with students and why?
I had prepared a presentation and activity drawing on the story of the Three Little Pigs to understand different building structures for 7th and 8th grade girls. The girls built and tested straw structures and block structures for strength and height. Groups competed for tallest and strongest structures.
Before I started the presentation, I noticed that one of the girls had cut out the center of an open notebook to hide her phone and look like she was reading. I was amazed by her solution. In discussing this, another student shared that she hollowed out a glue stick to hide a few pieces of candy. These girls identified problems and built solutions. We had an impromptu Shark Tank pitch competition before we started the planned activity.
With encouragement and guidance, design and engineering may seem like a real path for this group of students. In retelling this to a high school career counselor, we shared that girls are often considered “crafty” when boys are given toys that make them builders and engineers. As a girl, I was always fixing or modifying my toys. I loved building picnic tables in my high school woodshop. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I saw myself as an engineer and designer. The language we use has meaning and can influence how girls see themselves.
- What have you learned from working with PE youth?
Each student has a lifetime of experience. Relating that experience to new information can make concepts easier to understand. I learn so much from their questions and their observations to understanding what I do in a new way.
I haven’t had a linear career path. As a student, I would hear adults tell their life stories as a progression of successes. When I faced adversity as a young adult, I thought the people I looked up to never had to face the same challenges. It wasn’t until those adults became my peers that I came to understand that the most innovative people face a great deal of adversity. I now tell students about taking a math class three times before I passed it and graduating from high school thinking I’d never be good at math. I feel a little more vulnerable, but I have gained the confidence to share my failures and successes.
Also, hands-on activities and props that can aid in understanding are great. Don’t hand them anything that can make noise until after you’ve made introductions
- How do you enjoy spending your time outside of Project Exploration?
I picked up sewing a couple of years ago. I enjoy sewing new things, often from repurposed fabric. I make jewelry and bake lots of sweets with all natural ingredients.
I started a podcast with a friend to share the stories and impact of environmentalists of color: Shades of Green Chicago
- What’s next for you?
Starting my own company has been challenging. I believe in bringing technology and green building practices to a larger audience. I’m excited to see my company grow and to see advances in technology for the industry.
- In preparing for PE programs, what skills have you gained that you feel are most valuable?
I’ve had over a decade of experience in the construction industry and often have difficulty explaining technical information to people outside the industry. Talking to students about my startup I have refined my pitch with their feedback. Sharing technical information about my business with a general audience has become much easier.
- Did you ever imagine yourself being so involved with a nonprofit that advocates STEM education like Project Exploration?
No, but I find my involvement rewarding. Starting a new company has been challenging. Taking a step back to prepare for meeting Project Exploration students energizes me.
Project Exploration is honored to work with amazing and intelligent STEM Professionals like Juanita. Our STEM Professionals serve as not only part of a lesson plan but also as role models, as inspiration for our students. Thank you to Juanita and others like her from everyone at Project Exploration.
Interview Questions Completed By: Juanita Garcia
Interview Questions Provided By: Lukas C. Cottingham, Marketing and Communications Director