My story

Math was always my favourite subject. It just seemed logical to become an engineer.

I liked to figure out how things worked. Out of school, I studied a double bachelor’s degree in both Mechanical Engineering as well as Arts, majoring in the French language. Languages have always been an interest of mine, I grew up in Lebanon speaking English, Arabic and French.

Straight out of university, I got a job working as a graduate engineer at Thales. This was great, they rotated me through four different areas so that I could see how the different departments worked. I settled in systems engineering, where we build protected vehicles for the Commonwealth. While it’s tempting to say, ‘mechanical engineers deal with moving objects,’ it’s a very flexible and fluidly evolving career. At the core of it, you’re a problem solver. What you learn at university is more about using the tools that you’ve got to look at problems differently, and try to come up with new solutions.

Last year I decided that I wanted a career change to teaching. So, on top of my job, I’ve gone back to uni to do a masters in secondary teaching. In my classroom, I want to move away from the stigma that maths is not a fun subject. I want to foster a creative environment that's enjoyable for all students-not just the ones who already like maths. I’m still working at Thales and will continue to do so until I can’t juggle both anymore.

Working as an engineer is great, but it can also be frustrating. Especially in a big company working on a huge project, you don’t always see the outcome of what you’re working on for many months. As an outlet, I spend a lot of my time outside of work doing crafty things, I’ve recently gotten back into knitting and crocheting. I like doing something where I can see the final product almost immediately. I find it soothing and relaxing, just valuable in general for my mental wellbeing. I also love playing music, I’ve tried to learn a couple of musical instruments that I’m half okay at! And sports, particularly netball.

What is mechanical engineering?

What is mechanical engineering?

In simple terms, mechanical engineering deals with moving objects (as opposed to civil engineering for example, that deals with stationary objects). Mechanical engineers can work on cars, develop machinery in factories, design vehicles used in the mining industry (to extract oil and minerals from the ground). Mechanical engineers are quite flexible, we learn the basics of dynamics and kinematics, the way things move and the forces involved. But those principles are transferable to many different areas.

During my degree, we studied a lot of basic physics and math principles. We looked at the basics of all civil, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering. Then, as mechanical students, we focused more on principles of fluid dynamics for example, which looks at how fluids move differently depending on their thickness. I also did a bit of materials science-if we’re building something, we need to know the properties of those materials. We need to question whether the concrete or steel we’re using can actually withstand the forces that will be on it. Then after the first year, it was more about little pockets of situations to apply our knowledge and problem-solving skills toward.

At the end of the day, I know a lot of people who studied one form of engineering and are working as a different type of engineer. So even though I studied mechanical engineering at university, I’m actually working as a systems engineer at the moment. This is basically looking at a project holistically and identifying the requirements necessary to meet the customers' needs. For example, you've got a customer who says, 'I want a car to be able to go from Paris to Melbourne in two days instead of three days.' They might have their own set of requirements, but you need to figure out what they actually need. They might say, 'I want it to be red.' What they actually mean is: 'I want it to be fast'. You have to decipher what they want and recreate the requirements.

While it's tempting to say, 'mechanical engineers deal with moving objects,' it's a very flexible and fluidly evolving career. At the core of it, you're a problem solver. What you learn at university is more about using the tools that you’ve got to look at problems differently, and try to come up with new solutions.

Building military vehicles at Thales

I graduated from uni in mid 2016 to start working as a graduate engineer at Thales. That was great, I was given four rotations to give me an idea of all the engineering components that were available. For example, I worked with a more experienced, mentor, engineer on a project in self-funded research and development. I spent 6 months in Brisbane, at another location. It was fascinating to see how the same work can be done so differently in two places. Most recently, I’ve moved into systems engineering from design engineering.

The department that I work for builds protected vehicles for the Commonwealth, e.g. the Australian Defense Force. Protected vehicles are basically big army trucks, we work on the light and medium vehicles (where heavy would be tanks). The two I worked on were the Bushmaster and the Hawkei. The Bushmaster has been around for over 20 years now, there have never been any fatalities in it. So, it’s been able to protect every single person from incoming attack, which includes bombs and ballistics. The Hawkei is new and hasn't been used in action yet.

The bulk of these vehicles have already been designed. There wasn't a lot of massive design work to do. However, there were a lot of little things that we needed to do. For example-this sounds completely inconsequential-but things like a little thumb screw that connects a screen to the front dash. This screen has information that the commander can see. There was an issue with that thumb screw where it was coming loose. When it was loose, the monitor could go back and forth, which could be dangerous. If you're driving at speed along the bumpy road, it could knock you out. Or in a blast situation, it could cause a lot of damage. So, while it's a tiny little screw, it can become a projectile if it hits someone on the head in exactly the wrong spot. I did a little bit more design on that to make sure to keep it more secure. It was important because at the end of the day, we wouldn't have been able to meet our requirements of ensuring that there are no secondary projectiles inside the vehicle in a blast situation or a crash. It can come down to the tiniest detail which is why there are so many engineers working on the vehicle.

We predominantly provide vehicles to the Commonwealth, but we do have a couple of contracts with international customers as well. That brings benefits but also difficulties. It can be frustrating at times because different governments want specific things on their vehicles. It's not a fully customizable vehicle, especially when the customer tells us they want a certain space for something but for security reasons, they can’t tell us what that object is. We need to consider, blindly, what power to provide, supporting radio or antenna/electrical systems. It can be challenging but that’s the nature of Defense.

How do you test the vehicles, to make sure they can withstand bombs?

There are a couple of different things that we do. One, we use a software called finite element analysis (FEA), which are computer simulations. We have a small team working on that analysis, they can put the different properties of the materials into the simulation and see if it will survive or get blown into bits. Those simulations at Thales are quite accurate because they are based on actual physical tests. Aside from that, at the end of the day we do eventually take the vehicle to certain Victorian Defense facilities. We must blow up at least one vehicle to show that it does work. Those are very expensive tests, the vehicle itself is very expensive and then you’ve just ruined it. There’s also a lot of equipment involved that you need to put in the vehicle to measure the magnitude of the forces enacted during the explosion. We use dummies, and these are not just plastic dummies-but made from material that’s supposed to replicate human bodies. All the data gathered from these tests are then fed back into the simulations, to make them even more accurate. There are also other tests aside from blasting. The vehicles need to be able to drive over particular terrain. It needs to be able to drive across the country on first- and second-class roads. It also needs to drive on those roads for an extended period without any damage. For other parts of the vehicle, e.g., testing the strengths of certain brackets, we can do separately to the vehicle. So, it’s not always blowing things up. Sometimes it is, but not all the time.

Career change to teaching

During the covid shutdowns in 2020, the only thing you could do was work. I realised that the work I was doing wasn’t as enjoyable as I initially saw. I really enjoy working at Thales but I was ready to move into something else. I decided to do a graduate certificate in secondary teaching. From the first lecture I was hooked. That was a 6-month program, after which I decided to enrol in the full Master of Teaching. I’m still working at Thales and will continue to do so until I can’t juggle both anymore.

What excites your passion for teaching?

I enjoy engineering, figuring out how things work, but maths was always my first passion. It was what I enjoyed most in school, so going back to that feels fun. I’ve also always enjoyed tutoring and helping people to understand concepts. I figured I’d combine the two and try to make a career out of it. I want to move away from the stigma that maths is not a fun subject. I want to foster a creative environment that's enjoyable for all students-not just the ones who already like maths.

What would you say to students that don’t want to pursue a STEM career?

The things that you learn in math can be helpful in many other careers-not just engineering. If we take linear equations, for example, they’re pretty specific and you probably won’t use them outside of a STEM career. However, it helps you develop a certain way of thinking. It gives your brain some training in that kind of area which you can apply to other more complex problems. Those sorts of mathematical concepts allow you to create links between certain topics, to develop a new way of thinking. And train your brain to get better at thinking in general! People don’t wake up one day and become a philosopher or an expert mathematician, or an expert scientist. It's something that you develop over time using your brain over and over again. If you’re only doing one field of thinking then you are ignoring so many other opportunities to develop your brain.

Think of it in terms of sports. Professional athletes, like AFL players, spend a lot of their off season time doing squats and lunges. But never ever, will you see a professional player in the middle of a footy game just do a squat? No one says here though, ‘why do I need to do squats?’ We recognize that squats help build up your leg muscles, making you stronger. It’s not the skill of itself, but the benefits from that skill you will use. It’s the same with maths. You may not necessarily use pythagoras’ theorem or linear equations in real life, but the benefits to your brain of learning hard things are invaluable.

What are your goals for teaching?

We need to address the math stigma earlier on. If you’ve hated math for a decade, it’s really hard to undo that in just a couple of years! I would like to try some different strategies earlier on (year 7), to encourage the students to engage with the content a bit more and understand the brain training aspect.

In my experience with placement, I found a lot of students in the general math class just assumed that they don't know how to do “that”- so they don't try. I want to tackle that assumption earlier on. If you think you can't do something-you're more likely to fail. But if you think you can do something-you're more likely to succeed. I want students to stop telling themselves that they can't do maths just because they haven’t been very good at it in the past. That doesn't mean that they can't “do it”. It just means that I need to come up with a different way to come at the subject or explain it in a way that makes sense to them.

I also want to tackle the idea that there is only one way to do maths, in other ways that aren’t your stereotypical tests. There are a lot of students that get testing anxiety. I think we should move away from that and give them an opportunity to show their skills in other ways-for example in art! There are so many beautiful patterns that you can create mathematically. There’s a lot of mathematical basis in music, even just thinking about full notes and half notes-that’s just addition. I think if we can incorporate maths into something less stressful it may be more achievable for some students.

Learning other languages

On top of my engineering degree, I also did a bachelor of arts, majoring in the French language. Being multilingual has always been a part of my life, my parents are Lebanese and so I grew up in Lebanon for a couple of years when I was younger. In Lebanon, you learn three languages: Lebanese, English and French. I grew up predominantly speaking English and Arabic, but also learnt a little bit of French-I've got some family over in France.

Learning languages is another fascinating thing to me. Similar to maths, it gives you a different way to think. There are certain concepts in one language that don't exist in another. It makes your brain work in new ways, to look at things from different perspectives. Even if you just look at language structure-like a sentence for example. In English, you use 'subject-verb-object'. In Arabic, that’s not how you do it-you use 'verb-subject-object'. So the order in which you speak changes depending on the language that you are most comfortable with. In practice, I think that in such a multicultural society, it can actually help to understand differences. I understand the broken English of those for which English is not their first language. I can understand where that broken English comes from and what they're trying to say. It may sound wrong in an English way, but if you look at the sentence they're trying to say from the langage structure of their native language, it makes complete sense. Being multilingual helps you look at these things from a different perspective.

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