Meet Gabrielle “Elle” Wroblewski: Ph.D. candidate, K-12 science instructor, academically competitive
Wearing last year’s engineering open house t-shirt and a cap featuring a colorful techie cartoon character above the brim, Elle Wroblewski is obviously in her element. She is teaching a group of eight high school boys on a Saturday afternoon about rocketry through Illini Aerospace Outreach on the College of Engineering campus at the University of Illinois. She’s not a bouncy, entertaining type of instructor. Her delivery is calm and matter-of-fact. She might as well have been teaching adults. “I find that with middle school and high school students, if you just treat them like they can do it, they do it,” Elle says.
Elle received a B.S. in 2014 and an M.S. in 2016 in aerospace engineering and is currently working on a doctorate in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. With her demanding academic schedule, she still makes time to give back through a variety of K-12 workshops and summer camps.
“The kind of outreach activities I do with kids are things I never got to experience when I was their age,” she says. Elle is a first-generation college student who grew up in LaSalle, Illinois. While a student at LaSalle-Peru Township High School, she was on the fence about being a secondary school teacher or an engineer. In the many outreach programs she’s been involved with she gets to be both.
What got her started in outreach was actually the need for a summer job. For two summers, Elle earned hourly pay for her work with the icing research group in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. It’s a program funded by NASA’s Illinois Space Grant Consortium and directed by Diane Jeffers through the Dept. of Aerospace Engineering.
Also as an undergrad, Elle was involved with the Society of Women Engineers and their Brownie Girl Scout Workshop, and other summer camps that Jeffers coordinates. “As a camp counselor, I stayed in the dorm and hung out the kids,” Elle says. “I was there for their build sessions, but I didn’t teach them anything. Because I liked doing that, I asked Diane if I could be an instructor for the Aerospace 4-H Camp for high school students. I’ve been leading that camp since 2014.”
Last year, Elle started leading the Aerospace Uni High summer camp, which is for middle school students. “For those, I paired down what I did with the high school students and tried to find other ways to present the material to 9-year olds. Some of it worked well, some didn’t.” She’s also learned to adjust the science to a level that K-5th graders can understand for an after-school program at Yankee Ridge Elementary School, in Urbana. This is her third semester coordinating that class.
All of this is in addition to working on her Ph.D. in a highly competitive, technical field. And Elle’s own competitive spirit that eventually helped her find her fit in aerospace engineering. How?
“This is a bit personal,” Elle says. “The boy that I liked in high school was coming to U of I to study mechanical engineering, but he broke my heart into little tiny pieces. I’m just joking. It wasn’t really serious, but of course at the time, I thought it was. Anyhow, I did better than him on the ACT so I said to myself, I’m going to be the better kind of engineer and picked aerospace almost jokingly.”
That competitive nature served her well when she found herself in the minority. “My freshman year there were nine girls out of about 100, so less than 10 percent,” Elle says. “Those of us who stayed were all sit-in-the-front-row type of students and we worked really hard.”
One particular classmate, Ashley (Guebert) Pitsch, gave Elle the motivation she needed to succeed. “Her dad worked at Boeing and in my mind she knew everything there was to know about planes. She’d explain something to me and she made me feel like I could understand and do it, too. She was so good that it made me want to be better.”
Elle recalls her freshman year at Illinois as more challenging than she ever imagined. Like many freshman, Elle found high school to be easy.
“I had a really good math teacher, Larry McKee. I goofed off in his class a lot. I was a terrible student. I think he found me difficult to deal with. I didn’t pay attention, but I did really well. I was often bored with the pace of the class.
“Then when I got to college, I was overwhelmed by the pace of the classes. I failed one of my first physics tests. It was so bizarre to me that I would have to work hard. And then I got used to it and I’m still here. Retrospectively, I wasn’t prepared for what college or engineering would be like.”
Elle says it wasn’t until much later that she realized aerospace was definitely the right place for her.
“It didn’t really click for me that I had picked the right major until my junior year. I was constantly waffling. Did I do the right thing? Then I reached the 300-level aerospace classes. I had Craig Dutton for the 311-312 series which dealt with really interesting fluid/flow mechanics problems. I had been enjoying my science courses but up until that point I was still wondering if aerospace in particular was the right thing for me. When I took the fluid mechanics classes, I knew.”
In her early undergrad years, Elle says she didn’t always get top grades in physics and theoretical applied mechanics and fluids, but she enjoyed the content. That’s her advice for undergrads trying to figure out what field of engineering is the best fit for them. “Keep working on what you enjoy. If going to class and working on those problems makes you feel terrible, then that’s not it. But if it makes you feel alive when you get it right, even if you’ve had to struggle, and then it finally happens—that might be the right place for you.”
She also implies that undergrads should give themselves a break and not try to keep looking for the one and only perfect fit.
“I think I could be happy doing things in other engineering fields, at least those that are heavier in physics. I’m also into sustainability. My dissertation research is about hybrid-electric aircraft. Students can find more than one thing that they like.”
What’s next for Elle?
“I’d like to be a professor at a university,” she says. “And when I am, I’d like to be involved in outreach. Maybe try to start something like what Diane Jeffers does with summer camps. I might create curriculum materials for parents for free, like science crafts for kids that actually include science.”
Although Elle has had plenty of experience teaching, she realizes that formal training would be beneficial so she’s taking a graduate level class on teaching science, math, technology, and engineering. ”It’s making me revisit all of the physics and math that I learned in high school and as an undergrad. I’ve been noticing that kids don’t understand the topic in the same way I do. But when I’m teaching something and the kids aren’t getting it, I can change something and they get it. I experienced that, but I’ve never been able to predict it before. Now I know why something isn’t working and can change it before it becomes a weird mess.”