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Shattering Stereotypes

A mere 20% of engineering undergraduates in the united states are women, according to statistics from the Society of Women Engineers (SWE; Chicago, Illinois,

A mere 20% of engineering undergraduates in the united states are women, according to statistics from the Society of Women Engineers (SWE; Chicago, Illinois, U.S.). When it comes to female electrical engineers, this figure drops to a dismal 8.7%. Kristina Newhouse, a controls engineer in generation production at Avista Utilities, Spokane, Washington, U.S., is striving to boost these numbers by mentoring kids of all ages — particularly girls — and encouraging them to explore technical career opportunities.

“When I was in grade school, I thought math was for boys,” Newhouse recalls. “I managed to see beyond the stereotype when I started high school, but it wasn't until I went to college that I realized how important math is in almost any career — whether you work at a desk or out in the field.”

Raised in the small farming town of Basin City, Washington, Newhouse spent her college breaks working for Fluor Hanford as an engineer intern on the Department of Energy Hanford Site outside of Richland, Washington. According to Newhouse, her interest in the electrical industry runs in the family. Her father is an electrician, as were her grandfather and great grandfather, and her uncle and great uncle are both electrical engineers in the power industry. Even Newhouse's husband, Adam, is an electrical engineer. “My family has been an inspiration to me throughout my life and career,” she says.

Immediately after graduating from Washington State University in 2004, Newhouse joined Avista Utilities in the rotating engineering program, where she worked in distribution, planning and generation. Newhouse praises the entry-level rotating engineering program, because it offers inexperienced engineers networking opportunities as well as the chance to explore several different engineering departments within the power field.

“As a new engineer it sometimes can be overwhelming to realize how much there is to learn, especially when you're working with guys who practically built the system with the technology we are using today,” she says. “I have to remind myself that it's important to look back and see all I've gained and how far I've come in the last five years as an engineer. I owe much of this to the knowledgeable people that I work with, because they understand the importance of mentoring and sharing their knowledge.”

Like her coworkers, Newhouse sees the value in helping to guide young people. Her first year after college graduation, the young engineer became involved with Expanding Your Horizons (EYH), a conference aimed at nurturing girls' interest in science and math courses to encourage them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math. “During the Spokane conference, the girls participate in scenarios that range from crime-scene investigation and chemistry to nursing and law enforcement,” says Newhouse. “The first two years I volunteered, I was the only engineer, so I assisted the architects. Last year, I was determined to organize an engineering scenario.”

To achieve this objective, Newhouse and a small group of local engineers decided to recommence the Inland Northwest SWE, which had been inactive for several years. For its first action of business, Newhouse led the recently organized group to participate in EYH.

“Not only did the SWE chapter meet its goal of having a scenario at Spokane's 2007 EYH event, we surpassed it,” she says. “We had two engineering-related scenarios — one for electrical and mechanical engineering and another for civil and environmental engineering.”

In addition to EYH, Newhouse volunteers for Lunch Buddies, Junior Achievement, Math Engineer Science Achievement and various local elementary school science fairs. “As a female engineer, I hope that by being an outgoing and energetic role model in the classroom when I volunteer, I might be able to break some of the gender stereotypes kids may have,” she says. Newhouse especially looks forward to the occasions when she gets to introduce herself to children as an engineer and explain to them what that means.

“I've found it doesn't usually matter if the kids are in elementary school or high school, the majority of them don't know what engineering is,” she says. “Unless a child has a parent or family member who is an engineer, there isn't much influence in society to make kids aware of engineering, let alone consider it as a career possibility.”

When it comes to plans for the future, Newhouse says she hopes to be a positive influence on people she interacts with. “As I grow and learn, I hope to enhance how I give back to my family, my community and my career,” she says. According to Newhouse, she envisions herself in a high-level leadership role someday. “I'm not sure if this will be part of my career, within my community, or both. Right now, I'm focused on doing all I can to be a great engineer, mentor, wife and friend.”

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