Daily Iowan: UI Alum Inspires Youth Interest in Engineering

By Juliana Fabiano
Daily Iowan

Jessa Hansen/The Daily Iowan

Rebecca Whitaker scans a room full of 24 energetic middle-school students playing with engineered robotic cars they made entirely out of Legos.

As the K-12 outreach director for the University of Iowa's College of Engineering, Whitaker is in charge of creating and running camps for young students interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

"I try to really focus on recruiting young students, especially the ladies at the middle-school level, " she said. "They seem to get the notion that it's not cool to be smart, and I want to give them that confidence."

She makes it her personal goal to change the misconceptions about engineering for young women in the hope that when they reach the upper high-school level, they decide to pursue a career in engineering — ideally at the UI College of Engineering.

As a little girl, she said, she didn't even know what an engineer was. In college, she became interested in engineering but ultimately decided to pursue communications.

While working toward a bachelor's degree at the UI, Whitaker said, she was intimidated by courses such as calculus and physics because of the large male population.

"I thought engineers drove trains," she said. "I didn't know a particular woman who was an engineer and I didn't really have any role models to look up to."

The Hills native said by creating summer camps for students interested in math and science, she hopes to inspire children to believe they can do similar activities professionally and provide mentors that will encourage them.

Leon Turner, Whitaker's Robotics camp coworker and an employee of Rockwell Collins, said Whitaker's combination of excitement along with motivation has inspired students to start dreaming.

"I think there's an interesting curiosity that our untapped society bases jobs on certain criteria," he said. "Ideas need to be nurtured, and she encourages students to bring out those talents whether it's for girls or boys."

Turner said Whitaker is successful at her job because she has an ability to handle and manage so many moving parts, whether it's the students themselves or the robotic cars they build.

Besides the Lego Robotics camp, Whitaker runs another summer camp focused on renewable energy called RESP:ECT and PharmCamp — a program for girls in grades four through six to learn about engineering, pharmacy, and medicine.

Husband Eric Whitaker said she enjoys teaching kids with Legos and robots to keep them interested in activities that will set them in the right direction for the future.

"She wants to get kids more involved in science and math, especially young girls, that will lead to more female engineers," he said. "She loves what she does and wants to do the best job she can for the university and the College of Engineering."

Rebecca Whitaker's efforts for the UI are focused far ahead of the college level, and she said she has high hopes for young generations interested in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Her goals include eventually having every school district in Iowa have a robotics program, students to progress through her camps and volunteer for engineering efforts, and have a 50-50 ratio for men and women enrolled in the engineering school.

"I want to provide hands-on experiences where students are allowed to think outside of the box," Whitaker said. "I call it a magic moment, a light bulb goes off, and they think, 'Hey, I can do this.' "