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Engineer honored for her work with the next generation

Published 06/15/2012 12:00 AM

As she handed out paper, paper clips and tape, Kimberly McLean told the teenage girls in front of her to "think like an engineer."

They had to use their supplies to build a freestanding structure at least 13 inches tall with a base of 25 square inches or less that could support a small ball for at least 10 seconds. They could meet the requirements any way they wanted.

McLean was trying to get them to think critically.

"Engineering is really about thinking about a problem and how you solve it," she said. "I encourage them. And if any become engineers or scientists in the process, so much the better."

A principal engineer at Electric Boat in Groton, McLean runs workshops for the Girl Scouts of Connecticut in the hopes that more young women will get excited about science, technology, engineering and math, and possibly consider careers in these fields.

The Connecticut Technology Council recently honored McLean with a Women of Innovation Award in the community innovation and leadership category for her 20 years of work with the Girl Scouts.

Many of the council's member companies think it's important to recognize role models who help get young women involved in science and technology, said Matthew Nemerson, president and CEO of the council, an industry association for the technology sector.

And McLean, he said, is a perfect example because of the way she shares her enthusiasm for engineering.

At the April workshop at Camp Pattagansett in East Lyme, the teenagers took their supplies and set off to work in two groups. One teen folded paper into an origami box. Her teammates made paper tubes, connected them with tape and placed the long tube in the box. They filled the box with paper clips to stabilize the structure.

McLean placed the ball on top of the tube and counted to 10.

"Yes! Success!" said Bridget Kolf, 16, of Madison.

Bridget said she struggles in math and science in school but the activity showed her these subjects can have "a brighter side."

"I don't know much about being an engineer," added Meggie Stewart, 15, also of Madison. "Maybe I can learn more about it being a future career option."

McLean, who lives in Norwich, said she started these workshops with the Society of Women Engineers more than 20 years ago because she saw a real need for them. Later her daughter, Elizabeth, joined the Girl Scouts as a Daisy. She is now 17 and a Girl Scout Ambassador.

"There are definitely not enough students, especially not enough women, going into science, engineering and math careers," McLean said. "A lot of it is because they don't get exposed to it as a career opportunity. Their parents don't necessarily put it out there. And for the longest time, you never saw any good role models on TV."

MythBusters on the Discovery Channel, she said, is "one of greatest shows ever."

A troop leader in Franklin, McLean plans the hands-on workshops for all ages. Younger girls have built geodesic domes out of toothpicks and gumdrops while teens have made towers out of spaghetti.

McLean's father also worked at Electric Boat. But she didn't consider following in his footsteps until a recruiter at a college fair suggested an engineering program. She earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Western New England University and a master's degree in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"For a number of reasons he never really talked too much about what he did," McLean said of her father, Robert Yost. "I don't think he ever really thought of engineering as something he should have encouraged me to do."

They worked together at the Groton shipyard for more than a decade.

"I want to be a mentor," McLean added. "Hopefully I can provide that spark that somebody did for me many years ago."

Margaret Hansen-Kaplan, chief operating officer of Girl Scouts of Connecticut, said McLean has "inspired girls to expand their horizons" in math and science.

"We were thrilled that she was recognized by the Connecticut Technology Council as a Woman of Innovation," she said. "Kim is a wonderful example of a woman who has brought so much to our girls, helping them build courage, confidence and character, to make the world a better place."