Emily Hernandez: Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers

The IEEE-HKN member is paying it forward by mentoring teens from underrepresented groups

17 July 2017

Ever since she was in high school, Emily Hernandez has been encouraging young people to pursue science, technology, engineering, or math. The IEEE graduate student member now is pursuing a Ph.D. at Stanford in electrical and electronics engineering.

Hernandez mentors Hispanic preuniversity students at the Third Street Community Center, in San Jose, Calif. While an undergraduate student at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, in Rolla, she was a correspondent for The Bridge, the membership publication of IEEE–Eta Kappa Nu (IEEE­-HKN), the organization’s honor society. In that role, she was responsible for submitting the annual chapter report to national HKN, which determines which HKN chapters get the annual Outstanding Chapter Award.

For her volunteer efforts, she received the society’s 2016 Alton B. Zerby and Carl T. Koerner Outstanding Student Award. The honor recognizes “scholastic excellence and high moral character, coupled with demonstrated exemplary service to classmates, university, community, and country.”

Hernandez also was selected to present the IEEE-HKN Eminent Member recognition—the society’s highest membership award—to IEEE Fellow Tom Kailath, professor emeritus of engineering at Stanford, during the IEEE Honors Ceremony, held in May in San Francisco.

The Institute spoke with Hernandez about her experience as a mentor and volunteer.

What got you interested in doing outreach work?

My first experience volunteering for preuniversity outreach was while I was attending high school in Memphis. The University of Memphis hosts a summer camp, Girls Experiencing Engineering (GEE). My mom signed me up for the camp when I was in middle school. Before GEE, I didn’t even know what engineering was; I just knew I liked learning math in school.

As a high school volunteer, I mentored teams of middle schoolers at GEE trying to complete a variety of challenges such as building the strongest bridge using K’nex plastic building blocks, designing a toy-sized car that could drive around obstacles, and programming a robot to do simple tasks. I encouraged participants to keep taking the advanced math and science classes in school.

GEE encouraged me to be creative and taught me that failure isn’t something to be afraid of. I tried to convey these lessons whenever my students got discouraged because their designs weren’t working. One of the main reasons I continue to be involved in mentoring and outreach events is that I want more minority students to overcome a fear of failure and embrace creative, out-of-the-box solutions.

What are some of your favorite outreach events?

One is a weekend event the Society of Women Engineers at Missouri S&T hosts each semester. Typically, it’s attended by high school junior and senior girls who are considering pursuing a STEM major in college. During the event, the girls visit engineering departments and do related activities such as soldering and learning the basics of electrical circuits. One high school junior I met was unsure about becoming an engineer, but when I saw her the following year, she told me she was enrolling in Missouri S&T’s engineering program that fall.

Another event I’ve enjoyed as a mentor is the annual Tech Challenge at Third Street Community Center. It brings together groups of local Hispanic middle and high school students to compete in an engineering challenge hosted by the city’s Tech Museum.

This year’s challenge, which took months to complete, was to design and build a bridging apparatus that could cross a 30-centimeter gap between two tables. I mentored a team of three sixth-grade girls. The girls had a difficult time coming up with ideas to complete the challenge. I spent hours helping them to brainstorm and prototype dozens of solutions until we found one that seemed it would work. As the months went by, I saw a huge difference in my team’s ability to approach the challenge creatively, design prototypes, and make changes after testing each design.

What is your advice for young women starting out in engineering school?

As an undergraduate, I wish I had known that asking for extra help during the professors’ designated office hours is one of the best ways to learn. During my first few semesters, I was afraid that asking for help meant I was admitting I wasn’t smart enough. But now I realize it’s one of the best ways to learn. It also shows your professor that you care about the class.

During my freshman year, I was so frustrated at times when I couldn’t understand certain engineering concepts that I considered switching to a different major. My advice to other women is to be persistent: Everything is hard before it’s easy; most of the other students are struggling just as much as you are. Let go of the idea that you must be as close to perfect as possible. Instead, focus on learning. You’ll have a much more enjoyable college experience if you do.

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