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Exploring Post-Secondary STEM Education with Lauren Howe

Lauren Howe working on a laptop in class
Lauren Howe working on a laptop in class

Lauren Howe is not your typical engineer. While she graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in industrial engineering, she’s always enjoyed expressing her creative side, even going on to represent Canada in Miss Universe 2017. We asked Lauren about what led her to pursue STEM and her tips on choosing a post-secondary program.


What inspired you to pursue a degree in STEM?

It felt like a natural choice in high school. My train of thought was that if your grades are good and you’re interested in those subjects, select those courses. It felt like an obvious choice for me to keep doors open and meet university prerequisites. Then committing to a STEM degree felt like it kept career options down the line. If you changed industries, a STEM background will never hurt you.

Deciding which specific program after high school felt like a more daunting task. There’s this overwhelming idea that what you decide to study will be what you do for the rest of your life. We’re constantly told this isn’t the case, but you can’t help but get caught up in that mentality, especially when you’re 17 years old.

How did you decide on industrial engineering?

I enjoyed how broadly applicable the skills in Industrial Engineering were across a number of different industries and how it focused on solving business problems through a scientific lens. Optimization, process efficiency, and human factors design are found in every single business, simply in different capacities.

While I have no regrets about my degree choice and love what I learned, looking back and knowing what I know now, I would advise students to pick the major that they’re truly passionate about and are fascinated by. Stop worrying about the “best decision” or the “long play.” Personally, I moved away from a love of biomedical science and biomedical engineering because I was afraid of what I would do with that degree if I didn’t end up in the medical space. There are always plenty of ways to use what you learned down the road and even apply it to a space you may never have thought of before!

What does a background in engineering mean to you?

I’m incredibly proud of having this academic background. It teaches you to design solutions that change the world around us. It teaches you to tackle problems where the solution may seem far out of reach. This mindset is by no means limited to engineering, but it’s valuable to adopt these ideas when approaching any challenge. I look back on some problems and genuinely have no idea how we solved it… but we always found a way!

Lauren Howe helping a young girl learn on a computer

What advice do you have for students who are considering a future in STEM but also want to be able to express their creative side?

I love this question! There’s a misconception that you have to pick between the two, when in reality, they’re perfectly complementary. Creativity isn’t absent in STEM. Solving problems in STEM requires creativity.

I would encourage students to always find a way to keep that creative side of them alive. There might be times where you need to sacrifice some time away from it — temporarily — to focus on an important project. That said, I find that I’m the most creative when both are happening at the same time. By taking a break on one to use the other side of your brain, you return to that original project with a new perspective. It’s almost like exercise for your brain — it leaves you refreshed and clears your head. You don’t have to be an artist by any means. I’m terrible at drawing, but have a love of being creative through photography, film, and multimedia, and just have to laugh at art projects gone wrong!

Do you think the campus environment plays an important role in the post-secondary experience?

Absolutely! I overlooked this quite a bit when making my university decision. I valued global ranking over community, but I now value how important that community is. You’re likely going to spend four or five years studying at school. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the people you meet, and there’s tremendous value in the network that comes out of that school. Some of your lifelong friends, relationships, and co-founders will come from these years. Pick a place that will foster and grow these relationships.

This is a common trade-off that commuter schools in big cities face. When so many students live at home, I personally find you don’t build the same deeply-rooted connections you do when you’re living with and surrounded by your peers. However, not everyone has the financial or familial options to move away or move downtown. There are also benefits to being in a school in a city. For example, you’re more likely to get involved in opportunities off-campus. Some of my closest friends still come from my undergraduate program at the University of Toronto and I had some incredible jobs downtown with major corporations while I was a full-time student. It all depends on what you’re looking for, but please consider community when evaluating your options.

What’s the most important thing for high school students to consider as they begin to plan for their post-secondary career?

I think there are a few key factors that should come into consideration. Don’t stop your research at what the top schools or programs are. It’s important to do some self-reflection and rank the factors that are most important to you, like personal passions, program alignment, community, living environment, class environment, and scholarships.

  • Personal Passions: Do you know exactly what you want to study and are you passionate about that, or do you know you need degree X for career Y? Amazing! If you don’t, that’s alright too. What topics and subjects make you the most excited to dive deep into?
  • Program Alignment: What will you be learning? What does each year look like? Is there a co-op component that you’re looking for?
  • Community and Living Environment: Do you want to be in a big city or do you want to be in a college town? Are you determined to live in a different city or specific climate?
  • Class Environment: Do you prefer smaller, intimate classes or large lecture halls? The latter might be unavoidable for your first two years, depending on the program.
  • Scholarships: This, of course, plays a strong factor when making your decision and always, always, always apply for scholarships, even if you think you won’t get it. You never know!

The most important thing is to talk to students who are currently, previously were, in the program you’re considering. You have the internet and a ton of resources available to you to find these fellow and former students. The best answers will come from going straight to the source. Remember, everyone is entitled to their own perspectives, so find multiple opinions, take them with a grain of salt, and then make your own decisions. Good luck!

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