posted on Dec. 18: The magic of Margaret Kirnbauer: Defining the world of engineering for young women


[img_inline align=”right” src=”” caption=”M. Kirnbauer and A. Culp “]There are no Lego legacies in Margaret Kirnbauer's history. No madcap explosions masquerading as science experiments.

Her love as a teenager was pure and simple: math and physics.

Mix that with a teacher who saw her potential. Add a serendipitous stop by the Faculty of Engineering's Fireball Show at her high school and you'll understand how she arrived in Engineering 1 at McMaster four years ago.

Now the 22-year-old civil engineering student is working as the educational program co-ordinator for a year, presenting the Faculty's Fireball Show to high school students.

She's showcasing the Faculty's nine disciplines and inspiring hundreds of high school students to consider studying engineering here.

(Kirnbauer and technician Andrew Culp are presenting the Christmas Fireball show for staff, faculty and students on campus today at 10:30 a.m. in JHE-264.)

“It shows them science, systems, processes, structures that engineers have built and opens up their minds to a career in engineering at McMaster,” said Kirnbauer.

“There are a lot of keen students who ask knowledgeable questions. One of the first questions they ask is 'Can you explain to me what an engineer does?' They're really curious about what engineers do in society.”

The female students are especially inspired by her presence.
“The presentation shows them what they might not have thought of before,” said Kirnbauer, who grew up outside Stratford, Ont.
“They get very excited when they see a female in science. It's the idea that you're doing what you're promoting.”

Since mid-September, Kirnbauer and technician Culp have been taking the Fireball Show on the road. They'll have visited high schools from Thunder Bay to Ottawa to Windsor and will have performed about 180 shows before about 90,000 students and teachers by the time the presentations wind down next spring.

Each show is the same: Kirnbauer does the live presentation which involves pyrotechnics, video and music, and audience participation. Culp handles the technical aspects from a lap top computer.

The best part of the job — and it is work: Kirnbauer's position is a year-long paid internship — is meeting the different students, she says.

“My favourite part is to watch the interaction,” she says. “We have volunteers who come up from the audience and they really get into it.”
That's the goal — to entertain students by crumpling balloons with liquid nitrogen, tying them up in knots to test their problem-solving skills or demonstrating the science behind a bike helmet. The by-product is energized prospective students who've experienced some of the excitement of engineering and will hopefully link that with McMaster.

“We try to show them a broad spectrum of products and devices that engineers have worked on and give them a sense of 'that's what an engineer is'.”
For Kirnbauer, a year of presenting science and engineering concepts to students has her thinking about becoming a teacher. Or pursuing a master's in engineering with an “environmental twist.” She may follow a path to psychology or social work.

But first she's coming back to complete her fourth and final year. Then, with her degree in civil engineering in hand, she's going to set the world on fire.

Above: Kirnbauer and Culp with the logo-emblazoned van they use to travel around Ontario, bringing McMaster's Engineering Fireball Show to high school students. Photo: Ron Scheffler