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Dr Helen Cartledge

Professional Engineer of the Year

Dr Helen Cartledge

A mother’s wisdom: Engineering can make your dreams a reality

As a child, Dr Helen Cartledge was told by her mother “engineering can make your dreams a reality”. Now she shares her career, advice and mother’s wisdom with other young science enthusiasts.

Helen grew up in a remote mountain village in southern Siberia. She walked 10 kilometres each day to school and back, sometimes in freezing temperatures and snowy conditions. She enjoyed learning and was encouraged by her mother – who had no scientific qualifications – to apply herself to learning as much as she could about the world through science.

Image of Helen with her mother
Image provided: Image of Helen with her mother

Gradually, Helen’s interest in science blossomed into a childhood dream to become an astronaut working for NASA. And again, her mother’s advice proved useful.

“Mum told me that there may be aliens, but no jobs in space. So instead I enrolled to study mechanical engineering and finished with PhD at the University of Sydney,” Helen said.

Recognised Australia’s 2019 Professional Engineer of the Year, Helen volunteers her own wisdom through the CSIRO’s STEM Professionals in Schools program.

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Understanding the value of STEM

After graduating, Helen accepted her first engineering job in the mining industry, where she quickly learned how engineering can make a difference. She solved a years’-old problem involving 280 tonne caterpillar trucks breaking down at high altitudes. She was able to find a solution within 10 days.

Since then, Helen has gone on to work a varied career. She served in the Australian Defence, where she was deployed as a science and technology liaison officer in the Middle East and as a senior technical advisor to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Today, she leads projects to deliver leading-edge technology capabilities for the Australian Navy.

“All of my jobs have been very interesting, and meaningful. My mother used to say to me ‘science can save the world.’ I can see now that she was right. She also said to me ‘if you can’t understand science, you won’t understand the world.’ And I know she was right about that too,” Helen said.

“That’s why I think it is so important that STEM industries support the Australian education system and its teachers in showing young people how valuable science, technology, engineering and maths can be.”

Sparking students’ curiosity in STEM

As well as receiving her mother’s encouragement to pursue science education, Helen also had the opportunity at a young age to visit a university lab where her uncle worked.

“That was a real eye-opening experience for me, and it helped set me on the path I walk today. I want to do the same for young people today, especially for young women, who benefit so much from seeing role-models in these industries. Australia has more than 100,000 engineers in its workforce, and only roughly 10 per cent of them are women!”

Helen has remained a committed advocate for science and engineering. For years she has been a volunteer through STEM Professionals in Schools. This program supports partnerships between teachers and STEM professionals to bring STEM learning to life.

Through the program Helen and her teacher partners have created and delivered a variety of activities. These include classroom experiments such as measuring electron speeds while microwaving chocolate and observing Bernoulli’s principle involving flight and air properties by levitating a ping pong ball above a hair dryer.

“I find once I spark the students’ interest in an activity, they are naturally inquisitive to learn how it works. I can then tie what we have learned to an application in my work, or to an application in life in general,” Helen said.

“I tell the students engineering is exceedingly useful. If you can figure out how something works, you can figure out how to fix it if it breaks, or even design it better.”

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Making a difference with engineering

In her current partnership with a year 1 teacher at a primary school in Canberra, Helen has enjoyed sharing a personal passion – sustainability.

She shares with the students a green composite engineering innovation that transforms waste plastics into building materials. The students have been able to hold samples of the recycled building materials themselves and see pictures of the potential homes that can be built in developing countries using those materials.

“My teacher partner is a sustainability teacher, so my invention ties in perfectly with what she is already teaching in class,” Helen said.

“I was able to show exactly how my engineering expertise addresses something that matters to me; reducing the environmental impact of waste, and increasing housing affordability simultaneously. I told the students it’s just another example of how useful and rewarding engineering can be.”

Helen recently spoke at a panel event for STEM Professionals in Schools. She shared more about her career and her interest in advocating STEM. You can watch the video here

This article has been extracted from ‘Engineers Australia, The Engineering Profession: A Statistical Overview, Fourteenth Edition, June 2019, Page 10′.

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