Mechanical engineering alumna advocates for diversity in engineering and sustainable futures

Mechanical Engineering Alumna Bethany Sparn could have just gone into the workforce after graduating with her master’s degree at CSU, but she thrives on being an advocate for women and diverse voices in engineering.

Sparn (M.S., ‘09) works at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden as a Senior Research Engineer and continues to stay engaged with her alma mater as a member of CSU’s Mechanical Engineering Advisory Board.

A voice for change

As a board member, Sparn provides industry perspective to the Department of Mechanical Engineering regarding initiatives and plans for the future. She advocates for more energy-related coursework and programs that might help recruit women.

“Women bring a different perspective to engineering. They are smart, creative, and have their own style of problem-solving,” Sparn said. She finds women to be highly collaborative and focused on bringing ideas together to encourage teamwork.

Sparn challenges her organization to reconsider and restructure its approach to finding and hiring candidates. Often a member of the interview panel, Sparn advocates for female and minority candidates, and pushes for care over cost.

“I’ve advocated internally to advertise our open positions in places that might attract more diversity, like different engineering societies that represent minority groups, even if that adds some time or cost to the hiring process,” Sparn said.

Sparn shares a story from a brainstorm session. Her team was working to create a critical needs list for major power outages. A colleague from the Northeast had the opinion that a fridge wouldn’t need power during a winter outage, as winters are cold enough to safely set perishables outside. That point was countered by other team members from warmer climates where a fridge would certainly be considered critical.

Sparn said the same concept holds true when considering diverse perspectives.

“We forget about other needs and perspectives when they are outside of our typical routine and what we’re used to,” she said. “Everyone’s experience shapes their job, and having different perspectives means you get a fuller picture at the end.”

Teams with diverse backgrounds and experiences lead to more creative solutions, which ensures that the solutions designed by engineers are relevant to more people.

“It’s easy to be blind to challenges that you don’t experience,” Sparn said. “But by bringing diversity to an organization, we can make the whole world a better place, not just a better place for some people.”

Sustainability at NREL

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory specializes in the research and development of renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy systems integration, and sustainable transportation.

As a researcher in the Residential Building Group, Sparn’s lab work focuses largely on buildings-to-grid engineering. This type of engineering investigates how buildings can become more responsive to the electric grid in a way that helps utilities to add more renewables, and also allows homeowners to more effectively use their on-site renewable energy resources.

Sparn works on a new type of nonintrusive power meter at NREL. Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder
Sparn works on a new type of nonintrusive power meter at NREL. Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder

Sparn says her time at CSU solidified her love of lab work and solving problems. She points to using knowledge from her thermodynamics and heat transfer classes on a regular basis.

CSU also introduced her to working with a community of researchers on common goals that provided support and pushed her toward a career in research.

Sparn’s plans to make a lasting impact beyond advocacy are focused on combating climate change. She envisions a day when people understand energy and how our electric grid works. She also hopes we continue to make progress in adding renewables, replace more gas cars with electric vehicles, and have homes that can automatically adjust our energy use to reduce cost and respond to the grid.

“I’ll feel very hopeful for the future if we can achieve these goals for our planet,” Sparn said. “And I want to continue to be part of these solutions, by helping to find solutions that are accessible, cost-effective, and impactful.”