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Posted 3/17/2014

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By Ryan McClymont
Public Affairs Office

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”  -- First Lady Michelle Obama, September 26, 2011


March is Women’s History Month and this year's theme is "Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment." 

Iris Chavez, a San Francisco District project engineer, displayed those attributes while representing the district during a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outreach event at the Bay School of San Francisco March 5.  She spoke to an earth science class about her experience with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and her current work on the Napa Salt Marsh Restoration Project.

Chavez earned her undergraduate degree in civil engineering from California State University of Fresno and started working with the Corps as a civil engineer student trainee in 2009.  She entered the Department of Army Intern Program in 2010 and she joined the San Francisco District team as a full-time project engineer in 2013. 

“It was a bit intimidating seeing one female to about every six males in my college engineering courses, said Chavez.   “I don't worry so much over being a female in a male dominant field and just try to focus on doing my best at work.”

The Corps of Engineers is committed to strengthening STEM-related programs and inspiring future generations of young people to pursue careers in STEM fields.  Visiting Bay Area schools is one way the San Francisco District is accomplishing that mission.  Chavez said she volunteered to speak because it was a great opportunity to show future STEM practitioners how science, technology, engineering and mathematics play a major role in our everyday lives.

“Their magnitude of understanding the core components of what we do was just amazing,” said Chavez. “They understood what I was talking about, they just got it.”

One of the reasons they “just got it” was because of their science teacher Nicolas Fiszman.   Fiszman, who has an undergraduate degree in Geology and Geodynamics and a graduate degree in Geophysics, said the idea behind the class was to give the students a crash course in the history, geology and hydrology of the San Francisco Bay.  He wants the kids to realize it takes more than just saying they want to save the Bay, they have to understand the framework in which to do it. 

“I need the kids to understand that science doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Fiszman.  “When you do science without a context often times you come up with solutions that are not sustainable or that have unintended consequences.”

Along with Chavez, several other San Francisco Bay Area water agency representatives spoke to the class to prepare them to write their final projects on San Francisco Bay water resource challenges.   

 “It was really interesting for them to think about real world problems and try to come up with solutions that ethically and scientifically make sense and that fit within some kind of economic framework,” said Fiszman.

Not all of the students in Fiszman’s class plan to pursue careers in STEM, but Chavez’s advice to those who do is, “work hard and stay focused.”   She added, “The best thing about being an engineer is the creativity behind trying to make the impossible possible with practical solutions.”