As a structural engineer for WSP, Jasmine Sisson is doing more than just improving Michigan’s transportation infrastructure; she’s also using her passion and experience to inspire the engineers of tomorrow in Detroit schools.
For the past five years, Sisson has served as program coordinator for the Engineering Society of Detroit’s Engineering SMArT [science, math, architecture and technology] Michigan Program, a 15-week hands-on program that provides high school students with a taste of real-world engineering experience.
For her work with this program, Sisson was recently honored with WSP’s Community Outreach Award as part of its annual U.S. Awards. She was humbled but excited to have the opportunity to travel to New York City to receive the honor.
“I know what kind of amazing people we have in the firm all across the U.S., so honestly I wasn’t really thinking that I would win,” Sisson said. “So when I heard, I was ecstatic. It’s a great feeling to be recognized by your peers for something that you are passionate about.”
Sisson said it is important for her to be involved in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]-related community outreach and mentoring.
“The students I interact with are not exposed to engineering role models in their everyday lives,” Sisson said. “As a result, it is not something that they think of as a career option. I want them to see themselves in me and know that STEM is something at which they can excel.”
Her work with SMArT was motivated by an unpleasant encounter she had with an advisor when she was a college student.
“My advisor did not believe that I would do well in engineering and advised against me pursuing that career path,” Sisson said. “That experience made me mad. I don’t ever want a student to experience that same feeling. When someone tells you that you won’t be successful at something without knowing anything about you, it can be devastating.”
Sisson wisely rejected her advisor’s suggestion and pursued an engineering career with even more resolve. Since joining WSP in 2009, she has played a key role on high-visibility projects and is the lead structural engineer for all structures-related projects in Michigan, including the Michigan Department of Transportation I-75 Modernization project. She is also the project manager for the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel ceiling slab replacement design and rehabilitation project.
“It is an honor to be a part of the legacy of engineers that have worked on the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel,” Sisson said. “It’s not every day that you get to say that you are part of the company that designed and built something over 85 years ago, and continues to be a trusted advisor to the owners and operators of a landmark facility in Detroit.
“I wish I could see that college advisor now and show him what I have accomplished,” she added. “I’m glad that I had the strength to prove him wrong.”
The SMArT program is designed to help students envision themselves as part of an engineering team through a series of learning modules that introduce them to the basics of energy, alternative energy sources, renewable materials, drafting and writing. Mentors help the students design an energy-efficient house to respond to a request for proposal. The top three teams in each school then enter a scholarship competition with their projects.
“The biggest challenge we faced in the beginning was teaching engineers how to teach engineering,” Sisson said. “We needed to help them understand that students don’t want to just hear you talking about engineering; they want to interact with you. If they experience how something is built, they will become better engineers.”
There were growing pains in the early days, but as the volunteers became comfortable with the classroom experience, the creativity and enthusiasm among the students grew as well. Engineers and educators eventually collaborated together to write a formal curriculum for the program.
While students are encouraged to use their creativity, mentors are also there to provide a dose of reality when needed.
“Sometimes we have to reign them in a bit,” Sisson said. “They need to follow an operating budget as well as factor in the cost to build. We give them a lot of practical things to think about and apply to their project.”
The impact of the program was evident to Sisson when attendance was high for her first weekend class.
“I remember leaving and noticed that some of the students were walking home,” she said. “They lived miles away and didn’t have a ride home, but they still took the time to make it to that weekend class. This experience was so important to them that they were willing to take this time out of their day.”
She said the competitions have been thrilling experiences as well, watching the students face industry-professional judges to explain why their project should be selected. The scholarships are giving students with engineering potential opportunities to pursue that career.
“After one of the competitions, I overheard one of the students calling her grandmother, and she was so excited,” Sisson said. “She screamed, ‘We won, grandma! I won a $30,000 scholarship! You don’t need to worry any more, I’m going to school!’ I heard that and I just cried.”
Sisson said her experiences working with youth has had a positive impact on her personal growth.
“They blow my mind almost every day,” she said. “They think so differently, and their ideas and creativity is amazing. They never cease to amaze me with their insights and observations.”
She said their ideas are powerful enough to cause her to rethink the way she looks at a project or factor in its potential impact.
“Their viewpoints are so different from adults, so it forces me to look at things from all aspects,” Sisson said. “Communicating with them reminds me that I need to be able to communicate with people from different backgrounds, educations and experiences. Every time I work with a new group of students, I come away with a better awareness of our diversity and connections.”