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People who make a difference – Hayley Cullen

Project engineer, mentor, volunteer – Waupaca Robotics, Waupaca Foundry

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April 5, 2023

WAUPACA – As a professional working in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field, Hayley Cullen – a project engineer at Waupaca Foundry – said it’s important to her to help share her knowledge with the next generation.

Cullen, a graduate of Appleton East High School, said it was her involvement with her high school’s robotics team that first sparked her interest in pursuing a career in STEM.

“When I was in high school, I was on the robotics team there, and that got me started down the path toward engineering,” she said. “I got into design and fabrication, and I thought that was cool.”

Cullen attended the University of Wisconsin-Platteville where she majored in mechanical engineering and minored in metals processing technology.

She said the knowledge she gained through her hands-on education and what she’s learned thus far through her job at the foundry has inspired her to help support the next generation as they look to their futures.

“I think it’s important to show kids what kind of opportunities there are for careers,” she said. “Being in high school is difficult, and you don’t really know what’s out there.”

Waupaca Robotics
Cullen said she first learned about Waupaca Robotics – the Waupaca High School robotics team – through some coworkers at the foundry.

“Last year, I saw some people at work were involved with the robotics team,” she said. “I remember doing that in high school and thought it’d be fun to help out with.”

Wasting no time getting involved – Cullen signed up to be a team mentor at the start of the 2022-23 school year, which is the club’s second year.

Cullen said to her, it’s important to see students taking an interest in science and technology through clubs like Waupaca Robotics.

“When we look at the workforce, yes, there are a lot of people going into STEM, but we need many more,” she said. “So, (mentoring students who are) interested in pursuing something technical is cool.”

As a mentor, Cullen said it’s her job to help inspire and empower students to be innovators.

“Every year, the robotics competition creates a specific game to play, and we have to design a robot to play that game – so, we do a lot of design work,” she said.

Hayley Cullen, center, said it’s important to her to see students taking an interest in science and technology through clubs like Waupaca Robotics. Submitted Photo

Cullen said in addition to helping students build their robots and hone in on their technical skills, she also has the opportunity to help foster leadership and problem-solving skills, a sense of belonging and self-confidence – something she said is especially important with the female participants who are less represented in STEM-focused industries.

“Representation is important, which I think is something people forget about,” she said. “Sometimes, (girl) students say, ‘I can’t do this,’ or ‘that’s what the boys do.’ (Women in STEM-focused roles) have to show up and show them they can do it, too.”

Year-round guidance
Cullen said she has been working with the robotics team – which has around 16 members – since last fall.

“(The club season) is divided into a couple of sections,” she said. “Year-round, we meet once a week.”

January through February, Cullen said, is considered the build season.

“That’s when we start designing and building the robot,” she said. “(Competition rules) only allow you to build the robot then. During that time, we meet pretty much every day after school.”

Over the course of the year, Cullen said her role as a mentor is to help guide the students through the entire process – from concept to design to fabrication.

“I help out a lot with the design aspect – helping students figure out what’s possible and what’s not given timelines and budgets, including what’s actually physically impossible,” she said. “I help keep them on the right track and answer any questions they may have along the way.”

Cullen said some students come in knowing little to nothing about STEM or robotics but show major growth – both in knowledge and technical skills – throughout the season.

She said she enjoys watching the students grow as they learn.

“At our (first) competition earlier this year, it didn’t go so well – we had a couple of flukes that were out of our control,” she said. “But I said, ‘I know this didn’t go well, but we did these three things well, and this is what we learned to improve the next time.’ Then next time we focus on the thing we didn’t do so well. So, we move toward improvement versus dwelling on what we did wrong.”

Shared knowledge
As a project engineer at Waupaca Foundry, Cullen said much of her role consists of mechanical work, machine design and coordinating with contractors.

“A lot of the equipment at the foundry is either designed by the engineers in-house, or we spec-out the equipment and determine what we need, what we want to install, how to install it, how it fits into our process and everything that goes with that,” she said.

Cullen said the students often question her about her job and the path she took to get where she is.

“A lot of the kids ask me about what I do,” she said. “Sometimes, if you don’t know anybody that has a particular job, like an engineer, you don’t even know it exists.”

Continued giving
Newer to the area, Cullen said she continues to look for other opportunities to volunteer and give back.

“I moved here during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “So, I’m trying to get more involved in the community.”

Cullen said part of that will definitely be continued mentorship with Waupaca Robotics.

“I hope the team stays around for a long time, and we keep student interest and engagement going,” she said. “I plan to mentor for many years to come.”

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