Solar Decathlon Gives Women Engineering Students a Chance to Shine

The women on Team Orange County, sponsored by Edison International and SCE, worked on the solar home to be featured at the Oct. 8-18 event in Irvine.

Steel toe work boots. How hard could it be in Southern California to find work boots? But it was for Reem Habib.

“When I tried to buy steel toe boots, I couldn’t find any in my size — they had no women’s sizes,” she said. She settled for a smaller size in a man’s boot.

It is just one of the adjustments women engineers make in a profession historically dominated by men. As of 2013, only 11.7 percent of engineers in the U.S. were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Habib is studying for a master’s degree in urban planning and civil engineering at the University of California, Irvine. She needed the boots to work on a solar-powered house she is helping build with other members of Team Orange County for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2015.

Team Orange County will vie against 16 other college teams Oct. 8-18 to see who can design, build and operate the best solar-powered house that is cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive.

Edison International, parent of Southern California Edison, and SCE donated a combined $400,000 to the solar decathlon and to support Team Orange County. The team is a joint effort of students from Chapman UniversityIrvine Valley CollegeSaddleback College and UCI.

“By supporting the student team and solar decathlon, we not only support the development of new technology and demonstrate it in a real-world setting, but also the students who are going to become the engineers and architects of the building industry in the future,” said Edwin Hornquist, SCE Emerging Technologies manager.

Recognizing the lack of women in engineering, SCE has made a concerted effort to help them pursue studies in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) and through projects like the solar decathlon.

Habib, 47 and a native of Syria, has faced more challenges than most. She got her bachelor’s degree in architecture during the Great Recession, but there were no jobs when she graduated.

She started a catering business to make ends meet, but decided to go back to school for a master’s degree because she wanted a more secure employment and to be able to work in water resources and sustainability. She hopes someday to return to Syria to help rebuild her country’s cities and water systems.

Habib has never built a house before the solar decathlon, but her architecture degree helped. She said working on the decathlon also gave her real-world skills.

Teagan Barnes, 21, is another woman on the decathlon team. She’s a UCI mechanical engineering major.

While she said the school has been very supportive, “I do notice there are not as many female engineers.”

Her favorite decathlon assignment has been working on an innovative evaporative cooler — a sort of high tech swamp cooler that keeps the house cool using water and only a minimal amount of electricity.

“It’s the things you don’t learn in a classroom,” she said.