Deep roots

Emma Donaldson was in the first cohort of the UNSW Women in Engineering Summer Camp in 2013. As she prepares to graduate, she takes a little time out to reflect on her love of the land and her new-found mission to play a part in the new agricultural revolution.

Emma Donaldson, fourth year Mechanical Engineering student on her family farm.“I’m from a small town in north-west NSW where my family has been running a mixed cattle and crop business for the last 125 years. I think my upbringing has had a really formative impact on the way I view the world and my ambitions for the future,” says Emma Donaldson, fourth-year Mechanical Engineering student. Emma believes her deep connection to the land, her concerns over climate change and her humanitarian leanings have strongly influenced her desire to become an agricultural engineer.

Although she says the UNSW Women in Engineering Summer Camp certainly had a hand in it too!

In 2013, Emma was in the first cohort of 20 high school students to go through the Women in Engineering (WIE) Summer Camp program.  Established to encourage more women to study engineering, the program takes students in Years 11 and 12 on a fun, five-day, whistle-stop tour of engineering.

As a “bright eyed, bushy tailed” 17-year-old, Emma says it was the combination of a brilliant science teacher and excellent careers adviser that got her thinking about her future. “I knew I was going to do something in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] but I didn’t know what. Then my careers advisor saw the Women in Engineering camp advertised.”

Emma says the camp really helped her clear up some of the mysteries surrounding what engineering actually is, and the vast array of careers, disciplines and opportunities it offers. But she says one of the best things it did was allow her to connect with other like-minded young women who were interested in their future. By the end of the camp she felt confident that she wanted to study mechanical engineering at UNSW.

Fast forward four years, on the brink of her graduation, and Emma is planning a return to her roots. “I want to work in agriculture and help make technology more accessible to farmers. There is a big gap in this area and as an engineer I think I can help bring about social change,” she says.

“Many Australian farmers are of an older generation and still acclimatising to the massive technological boom going on. Simple things like water-monitoring technologies and drones can have a massive application in agriculture and can help make farmers’ lives easier, but many in the industry are lagging behind.”

At the beginning of this year, Emma took a trip down memory lane as a ‘house parent’ at the 2017 WIE camp. “My task at the camp was to be a role model for the young women taking part and hopefully inspire them to think about their career choices. It’s hard at the time to see whether you’re having an influence or not, but I really wanted to share my story and help them realise that, as an engineer, you’re capable of achieving anything you want.”

Over 100 students got a glimpse of what it means to be an engineer in the 21st century at the 2017 camp. They visited a series of companies including Firmenich fragrance and flavour lab, software development giant Atlassian and Infigen Energy, which specialises in wind and solar power. There were career talks from top female engineers and networking events so they could chat with engineering students and professionals about what they do every day. And there was the camp’s pièce de résistance – a week-long design project to devise engineering solutions for humanitarian challenges around the world.

Many Australian farmers are of an older generation & still acclimatising to the massive technological boom going on

Emma Donaldson, 4th year UNSW Mechanical Engineering student

Dr Alex Bannigan is UNSW’s Women in Engineering Manager and has devised and run the summer camp and the WIE program since its inception in 2014. She says stories such as Emma’s are incredibly inspiring for the students attending the camp. “Emma is a great success story for the Women in Engineering program. She has embraced engineering as a tool for change and is already demonstrating the impact that one person with passion can have on the world.”

UNSW’s WIE Camp fast facts

  • 103 students attended in 2017 (from 20 in 2013)
  • 1/3 are from interstate or regional areas
  • A $9,000 donation from the James N Kirby Foundation funded regional travel grants for students outside Sydney to attend
  • 27 students who attended the camp in its first three years are now enrolled in Engineering at UNSW
  • 23 former campers have been made offers for enrolment in 2017
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