How Girl Day inspired an engineer

First a field trip, then an internship – and now, a wide-open future in STEM

Muirrin O'Connell was a middle schooler walking the halls of what was then Rockwell Collins as part of Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, a worldwide campaign to show girls what the profession is all about. With every woman she heard that day, every science experiment she put her hands on and every simulator she saw, her interest in engineering grew.

The swag didn’t hurt either – and it kept the day fresh in her mind.

“They also gave us goody bags to go home with,” O’Connell said. “So that was a big thing, carrying around my Collins tote bag every day, making me think about it.”

She came back the next year. And the next. And, well, every year until she graduated high school. Now she’s coming back at least once more.

O’Connell, a junior at Pace University – and a recent intern at Collins Aerospace, a Raytheon Technologies business – is a keynote speaker for Collins’ 2021 Girl Day activities. The virtual workshops are among dozens of activities Raytheon Technologies businesses have planned around the U.S. and across the world.

Here, O’Connell explains the influence those Girl Day field trips had on her, life as a woman studying engineering – and how she's helping a new generation of girls pursue STEM careers.

What Girl Day meant to her

When it comes to STEM, the theoretical will only get you so far. Seeing is believing.

“Instead of it being, ‘Math and science are cool,’ I saw these topics applied to amazing technology and was able to meet engineers who had actually worked on what I was seeing," O’Connell said. “So just having that direct correlation was very, very important.”

Her message as a keynote speaker

O’Connell’s keynote will include the importance of networking and support. But there are a few main things she wants the girls to understand: It’s OK not to know everything – that’s part of learning – and it’s important to remind yourself you belong.

“Asking questions is the best weapon that you have in your arsenal because asking questions isn't saying ‘Oh, I don't know this.’ It's saying, ‘Oh, I'm curious, please teach me,’” she said. “I also want to say it's OK to take up space and to not apologize for it, because you're worth it and you deserve it.”

On being a woman in engineering

In high school, O’Connell started computer science and coding classes as a sophomore. She was one of only two girls in her senior year AP computer class. She’s grateful for the support of her teacher, who is “very excited” she and others are now pursuing professional careers in the field.

She considers herself lucky and says it’s still hard for women to pursue and stay in STEM careers. That’s a frequent topic at the Women in Tech clubs she attends at her school. So are impostor syndrome – the feeling you’ve faked your way into a place of prestige – as well as implicit bias, or the subtle and unintentional ways people can discriminate against one another.

“Even if we don't actively think about our differences or how we stand apart from others, it still impacts our decisions and it's important to think about that, and to factor that into our day-to-day actions,” said O’Connell, who is studying computer science and cybersecurity. “Things like impostor syndrome really make it difficult to encourage yourself in a field where you might not see people who look like you, or who might not engage with you in the same way.”

There are a few things O’Connell believes she wouldn’t have to deal with if she were a man. In her own words:

  • “During group work at school, if I don't immediately assert myself as someone aggressive and knowledgeable, the other guys in the group will not listen to me. I know what we're doing and I feel like I can help, but it's hard to do both the social and the intellectual aspect of it. I have to make myself fit into spaces a lot.”
  • “Another example is for my internship. I reached out to a woman on my team and I was like, ‘Hey, this is like a really stupid question, but is it OK if I wear skirts and dresses to work?’ I just didn't feel comfortable enough doing that without asking permission, so just feeling that presenting myself femininely would be unprofessional.”

The path ahead

O’Connell enjoyed her 2020 summer internship with Collins Aerospace, where she coded software for simulators, and she’s planning to return in the summer of 2021. And while her future is wide open, it wouldn’t be a shock to see her there again.

“I would really enjoy (working here) because during my internship I was able to see the actual day-to-day actions that you do at the job,” she said. “I think that having that hands-on work experience really helped me realize that this is something that I would want to do in my day-to-day life, and I would want to go back to Collins after I graduate.”