Three years ago, Sydney Bihn was one year away from graduating with a degree in middle childhood education from Kent State University.
That year, the junior created a lesson plan that incorporated women of science to account for their absence in many textbooks for one of her course assignments. As her fellow teachers-to-be presented their own lesson plans, Bihn sat in the classroom wondering if she could have been a Mae Jemison, a Marie Curie or a Jane Goodall.
“Later on it dawned on me that I was only 21 and it was not the time to say ‘I could have’ when I still can,” said Bihn, originally of Sylvania who is now living in Streetsboro.
Not long after, Bihn, 24, changed her major to aerospace engineering, and on Saturday she will graduate as the only woman in Kent State’s first graduating class of 12 theoretical engineers.
“Being the first woman, it’s a cool title but I definitely would have preferred having more women to work with. I’ve learned that women in the field are truly remarkable. There seems to be more and more in the classes to come, and it’s definitely a benefit to the other women in the program and to the program itself. Maybe it’s a nice title for me, but I would give that up in a heartbeat to work with more women every day,” Bihn said.
Kent State has long offered hands-on engineering programs, but the aerospace engineering — which focuses on mechanics of aircraft and space craft and the technology that goes in them — is the
university’s first theoretical engineering program. The university has since added more engineering programs, but they have not yet graduated students.
Blake Stringer, the founding faculty member of the program, explained that he started planning the program in 2013 and wanted to offer aerospace engineering as no other nearby public university
offered it and because the the program would align well with Kent State’s strong aeronautics program, which teaches the operational side of aviation. At many institutions, aerospace engineering is a subset of mechanical engineering.
Stringer met Bihn around 2016 when she requested a meeting to discuss the engineering program. Bihn had been considering transferring to the University of Toledo or the University of Akron for mechanical engineering, but began leaning toward aerospace engineering at Kent State when Stringer said he would help her finish the program in three years.
“We came up with a plan, and now she’s one of our top students in this year’s graduating class in that major,” Stringer said.
Even with Stringer on her side, Bihn said the transition was terrifying. She tried to approach the situation as methodically as possible, and used campus resources, spoke with professors and advisors, shadowed engineers at her father’s company, and looked into the possibility of graduating with her teaching degree and then getting a master’s in engineering.
“I went through all of these avenues to make it work so that I wouldn’t feel like I was throwing away three years of education. That scared me. My parents were supportive, but you still get those side comments about switching majors so late and wasting time and money, but in the end it was a leap of faith. No matter how much research you do, you don’t know until you try,” she said.
Her final push was when she was on a website for female engineers, and her father texted to tell her that he had run into some nuns whose advice to her was, “Dream big.”
“So he sends that text and then this ad came up on the forum for a movie called ‘Dream Big: Engineering Our World.’ I thought maybe I need to take a chance and have a little faith that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It was definitely a fearful decision, but sometimes you have to take a risk.”
Her big risk has paid off.
In the last three years, Bihn has held engineering internships at Prince and Izant Companies in Parma and at Kitty Hawk in Mountain View, California as part of the Brooke Owens Fellowship and has been a research assistant focused on wind-tunnel experimentation on different airplane wing shapes. She’s also served in leadership positions for various organizations, from local to international, all while maintaining a 3.93 GPA.
“She has really got the whole package,” Stringer said. “She knows how to master the course material. She knows how to get help when she needs it. She knows how to network and make connections in the industry. She knows what she wants to do. She’s a self starter and she goes after it. That’s why she’s been as successful as she has. She may talk about mentors, but she has a drive and she’ll do really well because of it.”
After graduation, Bihn will move to Gilbert, Arizona to be an associate manufacturing engineer at Northrop Grumman Space Systems.
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.