Brought to you by
Dr Jillian Kenny
Industry engagement, University of Melbourne, Co-founder, Power of Engineering
Civil engineer, founder of two organisations, a Superstar of STEM and one of the AFR’s Top 100 Most Influential Women … You would think there were few goals left to conquer, but for Dr Jillian Kenny, even the sky is no limit – literally.
“[A career highlight] has got to be returning to my hometown in a pair of Marchetti S211 fighter jets,” she told create.
She described that experience as a “how did I get here moment”, but after discussing her achievements so far and plans for the future, it’s easy to see what drives this engineer to accomplish great things.
Not only that, she’s using her experience to help spark a love of STEM in others and change the way engineers are taught in the process.
“Emotional intelligence education needs to become much more prominent in engineering education.”
Years from now when many future engineers, scientists, mathematicians and innovators are asked what first sparked their interest in a STEM career, chances are quite a few will say time spent in programs like Power of Engineering and Machinam.
Both of these were co-founded by Kenny to help inspire the next generation of engineers and math enthusiasts.
“The real driver for these programs was a desire for more young people to see engineering and other related professions as a real opportunity for themselves and their future,” she said.
Part of her motivation for starting these organisations stemmed from her own experiences as a young girl growing up in a rural town.
“I had no idea what engineering was, so it never crossed my mind as an option,” she said.
Her aim with programs like these is to bust some myths about STEM careers and broaden the pool of talent feeding into the profession.
“Young people self-select out of professions like engineering for a lot of reasons, whether they think ‘I’m creative, I must not be a math person’, or ‘I want to help people through my work but I don’t see that engineering is a pathway to do that’,” she said.
Hence the fighter jet – it’s part of a documentary she is filming with comedian Michael Veitch, 737 pilot Victoria Lowen and engineer/inventor Steven Gale called Any Fool Can Fly.
“It’s very much along that thread of shifting perceptions about what’s possible for ourselves,” she said.
Both Power of Engineering and Machinam also work to make science, engineering and maths engaging and relevant for young audiences. As her website explains, the aim is to answer that age-old question: why do I have to learn this?
Power of Engineering in particular is about giving school-aged girls the chance to experience the diversity, creativity and – most importantly – the relevance of the engineering profession to making a difference in the world.
For Kenny, this all ties into larger conversations about how the engineering profession needs to change to meet the demands of the future.
“Conventional thinking about teams used to be along the lines that the more similar the group of people is, the more easily they’ll communicate, agree and collaborate, and therefore they’ll achieve better outcomes,” she said.
However, she said that for cognitively demanding work (like engineering), having diverse perspectives, experiences and skill sets produce better outcomes.
“I think a lot of organisations are on the bandwagon [of] diversity is good, but many of them don’t necessarily understand why,” she said.
“When we interact with people who are different from us, it triggers a shift in our own mindset and behaviours. We tend to prepare better, we come to a discussion anticipating that it might be challenging to come to a consensus … it takes effort, and it results in more rigour.”
She added that it circles back to how engineers are educated and the ‘skills’ required to be successful.
“I think social and emotional intelligence education needs to become much more prominent in engineering education as well,” she said.
This belief – that engineering education needs to change before the profession can – is the driving force behind her next big project. Kenny is part of the team that delivers The University of Melbourne’s Innovation Practice Program, which is designed to develop a different kind of engineer.
“That’s very much around thinking about how we educate future engineers and the sorts of skills they need to be successful beyond just the technical skills – which we already do well,” she said.
“Really helping them develop a growth mindset, value orientation, the ability to work cross-culturally, those sorts of things.”
She said over the past few years, education has become a passion, and it’s something she looks forward to digging into more in the coming years.
“There are pockets of really great work around how engineering education is evolving,” she said.
“I’d like to see those pockets continue to evolve, expand and scale a lot more.”