Karen Rockwell may have been good at math and science as a kid, but that doesn’t mean she had any interest in becoming an engineer. There was no way she was going to spend her days sitting alone behind a computer. But then her older brother set her straight. If she was looking for a career where she could work with people and help them, she needed to check out industrial engineering.
This sounds like a strange fit—even the word industrial makes you think of manufacturing and shoproom floors, and most people familiar with industrial engineering envision it as streamlining assembly lines. But it turns out that industrial engineering can take you in many different directions.
Industrial engineers can work in human factors and ergonomics, studying how people use products and improving designs to make them easier to use. Others find their way into business, where they use their unique background to drive the business decisions that balance factors such as cost and speed. Other industrial engineers—like Rockwell—turn their understanding of process flows to the study of theme parks.
Rockwell may not have grown up with any interest in LEGO sets and computers, but she’s always had a knack for redesigning, improving methodologies based on her own experiences, and documenting and disseminating her ideas in a way that ensures others down the road benefit. This started a long time ago, back in elementary school, when Rockwell was a Girl Scout. Girl Scouts take on many projects that teach project management skills, and Rockwell was a natural at developing sustainable programs.
Take the high school dance committee. Every year the group started over with a blank slate, until she documented the steps to plan the dance, handling details like guidelines, decorations, and budgets so that any new group could hit the ground running.
Rockwell attended Purdue University in Indiana, where she majored in industrial engineering and minored in psychology—a combination she calls “the perfect way to pair engineering with how people think.” When it came time to find a job, she looked to the Disneyland Resort, where she was hired as an industrial engineer. If you think visiting Disney is a dream come true, so is working there. Disney calls out efficiency as one of the four key areas of focus, and this is public reinforcement of the importance of the industrial engineer’s contribution. “It makes you feel valued when people are asking you to help them get better and listen and implement your recommendations,” she says.
One of her preferred attractions has always been the classic Jungle Cruise, she says (admitting that she laughs at the same jokes over and over), so it is no surprise that one of her favorite projects took place on the ride. Her job consisted of observing how the attraction operated and then brainstorming with her team on ways to improve loading and dispatch so that more guests could experience the attraction.
Rockwell enjoys solving the kinds of problems that make visiting the park such a great experience for guests. What keeps work fun is that every day is different. She can be found performing a variety of roles, including being involved in operations, learning and completing studies as well as working behind a desk analyzing data or providing recommendations and making changes that she will implement.
There was a little bit of luck in how Rockwell discovered the field of industrial engineering. Many women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) today credit a friend, family member, or a teacher for breaking through the stereotypes and showing them the breadth of STEM careers. Today, Rockwell sees that programs like Nerd Girl Nation are helping young women understand careers earlier than ever. This makes her excited for the next generation of girls who will have access to so much more information. “They are going to get to pick a unique fun career early on rather than take a windy road to get there,” she says.
Rockwell wants young women to know that they can succeed—as long as they are prepared to work hard. “I think what helps someone make it in STEM is how hard they work, not how smart they are,” she contends. “As long as they’re willing to ask questions and learn, they’ll do great.”
This article first appeared in IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine December 2017.