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There can be a lot of pressure when you’re one of just a few females in a shop classroom learning to use machining equipment.

To help address this, the Department of Biological Systems Engineering created a bi-weekly Women’s Shop Night to encourage more women to get hands-on experience in design and fabrication. Of the 235 undergraduate BSE majors, 65 identify as female.

BSE assistant professor Becky Larson brought the idea to BSE senior instrumentation specialist Kody Habeck last year, and they made it happen. The first Women’s Shop Night was held in the fall of 2017 and it has been taking place every other week since then.

“Without Dr. Larson initiating the shop nights most of us wouldn’t learn these valuable skills and fabricate useful objects,” said Claire Rapant, senior in BSE with an emphasis in machinery systems.

Samantha Milota and Prof. Rebecca Larson work on their welding skills. Submitted photo.

The BSE Shop provides students with hands-on experience with machining equipment used in industry. The students learn machining and metal fabrication techniques and develop woodworking skills to improve understanding of the design, fabrication and assembly processes. The students at Women’s Shop Night began with small projects and have now worked their way up to larger independent projects.

Habeck, who manages the Shop, works with participants as they design and build their own creations, including tables, chairs and toolboxes.

“My role has really been to teach the safe operation of the various machines as well as to give feedback and pointers on the various designs,” said Habeck. “It has been great seeing the creativity of the participants as well as their interest to learn these machines. I am looking forward to doing this again next year and having even more participants.”

Lisa Walsh, a senior in BSE with an emphasis in natural resources and environmental engineering, feels more confident in the shop with more women around. “It is less intimidating and I have felt very comfortable asking any question, as silly as I may think it is,” explained Walsh.

Attendance at Women’s Shop Night and use of supplies is free, thanks to funding from the BSE department. It’s only open to female students in the BSE department, but in the future the department is considering opening it up to other BSE students depending on the space and funding.

“Personally I have greatly enjoyed the shop nights, and while I was at first worried about the additional time commitment, I am really enjoying the time with the others who participate and am quite excited about the project I am working on,” said Larson.

Typically around four BSE students – and a few faculty and staff from the department — attend the Women’s Night to improve their skills. Larson hopes that someday there will be enough women in the BSE shop that a women’s night won’t be needed.

“The more women we can encourage to gain experience in the shop through the shop night, we may be able to shift the gender dynamic to be more balanced permanently. I believe these types of initiatives have the potential to change the experience for many women to come,” Larson concluded.

This article was originally published on the UW–Madison News website.

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