Aerospace Engineering Freshman Katie Carroll's Trek Along the STEM Pipeline

October 21, 2015

Katie Carroll
Aeronautical Engineering freshman Katie Carroll

Kids tend to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Judy Garland’s daughter, Lisa Minelli, became a singer too. Goldie Hawn's daughter, Kate Hudson, became an actress. Racecar driver A.J. Foyt's son races cars. George Bush senior’s sons are all politicians. And just like Mom and Dad, Katie Carroll is studying to become an aerospace engineer. But while some might say she’s just following in her folks' footsteps, others might claim that her early and repeated exposure to STEM along the STEM Pipeline had something to do with it.

Carroll’s parents are both aerospace engineers. Her mom, Victoria Coverstone, is a professor in Aerospace Engineering at Illinois. Her dad, David Carroll, along with her mom, co-founded a local company, CU Aerospace, of which her dad is currently president and CEO. But the story gets better. They both got their Bachelor’s degrees from Illinois, then after a stint at NASA’s jet propulsion lab, returned to Illinois to obtain their Master’s and Ph.D. degrees. And the icing on the cake? Now their daughter Katie has chosen to study Aerospace Engineering herself, and at their Alma Mater, Illinois, no less. 

Regarding her choice of a career, Carroll would be the first to admit that her parents had something to do with it: “As you can see, they’ve had some influence,” she acknowledges. For one, “They were always pushing math and science,” she recalls. And while, like most little girls, she most likely received the obligatory baby dolls and Barbies, Katie relates an anecdote about receiving a gift that might have had a bit of influence regarding her career choice:

“I definitely remember getting a telescope when I was really young,” she recalls. However, her memories are a little hazy about whom it was for: “I’m not really sure if it was a gift for me or maybe more for my parents as well. We all played with it. So I definitely remember getting a telescope, trying to stare at the moon.”

Left to right: Katie Carroll with her mom, Professor Victoria Coverstone.

Other influences were more subtle. For instance, Carroll, who recalls spending a lot of time in her mom’s office growing up, specifically remembers this poster which left a big impression on her. "I guess a big influence in my life was Star Trek and Star Wars,” she admits (to this Trekie’s delight), “because my mom is a huge Captain Kirk fan, and I remember this poster in her office. It was…Klingon. I remember a poster in my mom’s office, and it was “Hello” in Klingon or “Goodbye” in Klingon, and all these other sayings in Klingon. Just little things.”

A townie, Carroll also remembers being exposed to local STEM outreach as a kid. She reports going to Engineering Open House on campus, “Because my mom is an advisor for many projects, so she had some booths some years, or at least her students did. I remember doing the egg drop at EOH and fun experiments like that.” She also remembers visiting Champaign’s Orpheum Children Science Museum.

Carrol says that her choosing a career in STEM is no surprise; that’s always been a given:  “I definitely, at an early age, knew I wanted to go into science and math,” she admits. However, it wasn’t until around her junior year in high school that she knew she wanted to be an engineer. It wasn’t some big epiphany, but more “I wanted a practical, hands-on career, and I knew that engineering is definitely very hands-on.”

So, the fact that Mom and Dad were in aerospace was the deciding factor in her choosing that engineering discipline, right? Nope. G.A.M.E.S. Camp was.

Katie Carroll prepares to pilot a small prop plane during G.A.M.E.S. camp in the summer of 2014. (Photo courtesy of Katie Carroll.)

“I should mention, going into my senior year, I attended G.A.M.E.S. Camp here, and that definitely was a huge influence in getting me to pursue engineering. I participated in the aerospace track of the camp.”

She qualifies that there are two emphases in Aerospace Engineering: “There’s aero, which is like planes, and astro, which is space.”

The one fly in the ointment? While her parents’ emphasis is astronautics (space), she’s chosen aeronautics (planes), which she also attributes to G.A.M.E.S.: “I’ve always imagined myself going into the astronautics part (the space part), but G.A.M.E.S. camp…showed me both aerospace and astronautics, which I thought was really great because it made me realize that my options are still open. Yes, I’m in aerospace, but I could go either way.” 

It was also a given all along that she was coming to Illinois, since her parents did. Right?

Nope. Because she’s lived in Champaign-Urbana all her life, she had intended to “Get out of Dodge.” She didn’t actually decide until April of this year, and it “ultimately came down to financial reasons,” she admits.

“I was really excited when I made the decision, but it took me a while because I’ve lived here my whole life…but I’m really happy with my decision coming here. And my parents definitely encouraged me coming here—alumni and everything.”

Carroll indicates that one of the benefits of being at Illinois is seeing her and then: “It’s really nice being in town, I’m not going to lie. Seeing my parents every once in a while. I don’t see them very often, but the occasional passing by, it’s nice.” In fact, since her mom has an office close by in Talbot Lab, Carroll even runs into her on engineering quad now and then, and drops by her office.

So how did the transition from high school to college go? Carroll took advantage of many of Engineering’s programs, which she found extremely helpful.

Katie Carroll exhibits the rocket she make at G.A.M.E.S. Camp. (Photo courtesy of Katie Carroll.)

For one, she participated in IEFX’s Summer Scholars Program: “I actually started classes here this summer —because I’m crazy!” she divulges. But she concedes that being a part of the program was helpful because she got a couple of courses out of the way and got the opportunity to network:

“I’m really glad I was a part of it. I will definitely say that some of my friends that I made over the summer will be my best friends continuing through the next four years, so I’m really excited for that. It was a great jump-start to the college program.”

Were there any cons? “I have pretty much only good things to say…except that I didn’t have a summer—but that was my decision...”

Carroll also found WIE Orientation to be helpful: “I met all the girls in my major practically (which isn’t that many) but it is good to know the girls that are going to be in your classes in the next few days, so I thought that was really awesome. I made some good girlfriends.”

How’s her first semester going? “Classes are hard,” she confesses. “Classes are very hard. They’re a lot of work. I did get a little bit of heads-up over the summer when I did take classes, but it’s much different taking two classes than taking six, as I am now. It’s a lot.”

Although she’s busy, Carroll is enjoying campus life: “It’s a little overwhelming with all the clubs and organizations and activities; there’s always something going on on campus, but I’m having a good time. People are nice. I love the international community here. We are kind of a little melting pot.”

Also, she’s not been shy about taking advantage of student societies and clubs on campus. When asked if she had joined any, she admits: “Yes. Too many. I just kinda’ signed up for everything, and now…" 

Katie Carroll next to campus icon, Grainger Bob, who keeps an eye on Bardeen Quad while seated in a bench just south of Grainger Library.

Involved in Women in Aerospace, she was recently appointed as external representative; she’s a member of Society Women Engineering (SWE); she hopes to join
Engineers Without Borders “because I really love their mission and everything, I think it’s amazing. Plus the travel aspect could be really cool.”  

Although she’s studying aeronautics, she’s still drawn to space. So she joined the Student Space Systems RSO (registered student organization), which is “basically building a big rocket; it’s pretty cool.” and also wants to get involved in SATDEV, a new satellite development club. “They’re thinking that by 2017, they’ll have a cubesat, which is just a small satellite (it’s about 10cm. by 10cm. cubed) and send it to space; so something from the University could go into space.”

As might be expected, Carroll’s dream job involves space too: “I grew up wanting to be an astronaut,” she admits, “not realizing that’s a huge aspiration…I think working for NASA would be a dream.”

Katie Carroll in one of her favorite spots to study in Grainger Library.

So did having two parents in aerospace engineering give Carroll a head start?  She says yes.

“Both my parents were huge influences,” she acknowledges. “My mom taught me a lot. It’s pretty extraordinary how much you know about the topic just because your parents are a part of it.”

Another potential perk? Mother and daughter can both imagine a future scenario in which Carroll takes a course that her mom teaches. What grade will she get?  “A+,” her mom replies without hesitation, smiling widely.   

Carroll discloses that her mom taught her a lot more than just engineering. “She taught me that the sky is not the limit,” she says. (Which is extremely apropos, since her mom deals with space).

Carroll also acknowledges learning how to deal with disappointment from her mom. She reports that her mother had a lot of road blocks in her own career. For example, she herself dreamed of being an astronaut “went through the entire process and got to like the top 100 people or something crazy and was disqualified because of her eye-sight. She had to completely reconfigure her career plans and goals, and she turned to teaching and is an amazing professor here. So she taught me that, ‘Go for your dreams, but if doesn’t work out, there’s so many more opportunities.’”

Author/Photographer: Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative
More: Aerospace Engineering, Illinois Legacies, STEM Pipeline, Student Spotlight, 2015

Katie Carroll visits her mom, Victoria Coverstone, in her office at Talbot Lab.