Alongside pursuing her BE(Hons) in Civil Engineering, Siobhan is also keen on volunteering, and has recently put her skills to use at Engineering NZ's The Wonder Project.
“Growing up, I wanted to be an architect. My brother is a couple of years older; he went to architecture and design school, and in Year 12 I got to visit and see what courses he was taking at the time. I ended up realising that I don’t want to design buildings, I want to build them. I was already taking Physics and Calculus and interested in those subjects, but had to change my plans on where I wanted to study.
“My decision to come here was partially based on free accommodation! I moved up from Wellington because my mum lives here. I’m originally from South Africa, so being in a bigger city reminds me a bit of that. It’s a lot safer here though! Coming from Wellington also means that there are all the shops that are already here, and there are beaches you don’t have to go to far to get to.
“My grandfather was an applied physicist. He was a real inspiration to me in terms of science. A lot of my family back in South Africa were in the arts, so I thought that’s where I was going, but when I moved to New Zealand at around the age of 11 it was suddenly like, ‘no, I can do whatever I want’, and out of me and my brother I was always the ‘sciencey’ one so my grandfather and I just clicked.
When all of us were together, me and my grandfather would be in the garage, building stuff. He always enforced that we can do whatever we want — it doesn’t matter who you are.
“We would always have fun playing around with ideas too. He was really interested in growing trees and fruit, but the birds would always steal them. They had this red currant bush and we used to cover it with netting every year until it got too big, so when I was in Year 11 or 12 we built this proper structure so the birds wouldn’t get into it. We got to design and build it from scratch and think about how it was going to be structurally sound and not fall into the house, and I guess I just really started playing around and building stuff from there.
“I guess then, engineering was always about having fun and learning, and that’s what makes something like the Wonder Project so cool. It’s led by Engineering New Zealand and open to students from Years 5 to 13. It involves modules like a Rocket Challenge, engaging with students at younger levels about STEM careers, and then basically being a mentor to high schoolers. For the younger students, it’s mostly about getting them interested in STEM and showing that it’s not just about boring calculations; that you can make something out of it.
“I got into the Wonder Project this year when my friend and colleague Dilys was unsure of her ability to commit herself to all sessions for the entire programme. We organised it so the two of us could make it to a class if the other couldn’t. The coordinator was then struggling to find more ambassadors and said I could sign up for another school, so I did two schools in total this year: Marist College and Cornwall District Park School.
“What the Wonder Project involves is going into a school and then teaching kids different things about STEM, like Newton’s laws, or just talking about your life and career. For the Rocket Challenge, you build a water rocket with students, launch them, have fun watching and getting soaked because they don’t always listen! But then you also teach them about health and safety and everyone gets a little high-vis vest.
“It’s just a really cool programme and the kids love it. You teach them all this stuff but all they really see is they’re building a rocket and trying to make it fly further. They don’t realise they’re actually applying theories like Newton's laws into the real world, but they do grasp these concepts. One of them had all these pom poms flying off and after their first test flight, they realised they weren’t working. They realised that they’re using more drag and it’s pulling the rocket down so they took it down, and I was like, ‘they've got it!’
I like volunteering and getting people excited about subjects like engineering because there are a lot of advertisements for it when you’re in Year 12 or 13, but at that point, it’s often quite late, which means there’s a whole group that may have missed out by then. There’s still a lot of bias when you’re a kid about what careers you’d go into based on if you’re a girl or a boy. We did a survey on ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ at one of the schools before and after the Rocket Challenge, and a lot of the students changed their mind. They really started thinking about what they could do.
“After volunteering this year, I want to get more involved. I’ve got a job lined up but am looking into what I can do. I’m hoping to get into some of the building projects that Habitat for Humanity are doing in Auckland to get more of my construction skills down because I don’t really have too much of that. I built things with my grandfather but it really wasn’t me completing them on my own; I just want more of those practical skills down, but I mainly want to do this to help people.
I grew up in a part of South Africa that was really quite decent. I went to a private school and lived in a city that was not super bad, but I also saw a lot of the third world part of the country. I was lucky enough to see the first world side of the country and that my mum’s from New Zealand, but seeing that a lot of people that really needed help always made me want to be there for them. I couldn’t at the time, but becoming an engineer kind of gives me that possibility to help.
“I love Geotechnical Engineering for its variability; I worked at Tonkin + Taylor in a geotechnical engineering role and discovered that no day or site is ever the same even if you’re doing the same task. You get to spend your time modelling things and coming up with new ideas, and there are so many different ways to have fun with it. I did consider other specialisations and my final selection was based on the parts of university that I actually enjoyed. A year later, I realised that even if I went for the alternative I would have tried to find my way back into something related to Civil Engineering. I made the right choice.
“The coolest thing about Geotechnical Engineering to me is probably areas like mitigating slope stability. There are situations like the Kaikoura earthquake where there are landslides and I think it would be really cool to be the person that helps mitigate those — not that I’ve done that yet, but I really want to! In terms of a dream engineering project to tackle, there’s this Engineers Without Borders project on a river bank where they built homes that go up and down with a tide that can solve some problems with flooding. Just coming up with an engineering solution that’s fit for purpose for those who need it is really cool to me.”