JE Dunn Promotes Women and Girls in STEM in Colorado

When you imagine a school field trip, having kids don hardhats and safety goggles and tour a high-rise construction site probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind.

But for 27 Denver high school girls who gathered at the Denver offices of JE Dunn Construction on a bright late September morning, walking through a 16-story building under construction proved more stimulating and eye-opening than another trip to the zoo or a museum.

More importantly, the experience made construction seem like a viable and potentially exciting career option to some of the participants.

The unusual field trip was one of a series of such tours resulting from a partnership between Colorado Succeeds member JE Dunn, a new nonprofit called Girls in STEM, and local school districts, in this case four schools in the Denver Public Schools’ CareerConnect program.

“We think that introducing students to the construction profession during high school will expand their understanding of potential career options, and we want to put together a hand book for construction companies providing them with the tools to be able to help provide this knowledge for the students,” said Joel Pennick, a senior project manager at JE Dunn, and a member of Colorado Succeeds’ Board of Advisors.

Providing construction site tours for students from Denver and other metro area school districts is just one way in which JE Dunn promotes science, technology, engineering, and math(STEM) education and workforce development efforts in Colorado.

Pennick is working with Colorado Succeeds in the early stages of exploring a possible construction apprenticeship program, modeled on the recently announced CareerWise Colorado program. CareerWise is based on the Swiss apprenticeship model, which connects employers from more than 200 occupations with educational institutions.

JE Dunn also actively participates in Junior Achievement to help promote financial literacy in local schools. Besides many employees volunteering in classrooms throughout the school year, JE Dunn sponsors “JA in a Day” where JE Dunn employees take over a local elementary school and teach the Junior Achievement lesson plans to every student in every classroom over the course of the day. JE Dunn is also a supporter of the Junior Achievement Finance Park where employees volunteer to help middle and high school students understand how to make educated real world personal financial decisions and work towards managing a balanced budget.

Having students tour the Colorado Center Tower 3 construction site, located near South Colorado Boulevard and Interstate 25, clearly energized Pennick and other managers of Dunn’s Denver office. And the fact that all 27 students were girls, typically underrepresented in the construction business, made the occasion more special.

The trip was organized by Girls in STEM founder and Executive Director Wendy Merchant, herself a mechanical engineer. Her two-year-old organization aims to “excite and empower” middle school girls to consider STEM careers, and to help high school girls take a “deeper dive” into various STEM professions through field trips, internships, job shadowing, and interacting with women in STEM careers.

Merchant decided to launch her organization after touring the STEM School and Academy in Highlands Ranch, and observing that only 30 percent of the students in the K-12 school were girls.

Girls in STEM began working with girl students at that school in 2014, and has since branched out into Denver, Adams 12, Jefferson County, and Cherry Creek school districts.

Pennick credited Merchant with bringing the idea of girls-only field trips to his attention. “Wendy came to us with this idea and we loved it,” he said.

At the start of the three-and-a-half-hour CareerConnect visit, each girl received a hardhat, safety goggles, gloves, and a bright orange vest. Several company executives introduced themselves – three women among them – and described their backgrounds and how they got into the construction business.

Shantelle Schrauben and Bailey Bulls from JE Dunn provided a project overview presentation in the job trailer before the tour. This presentation included some basics about the Tower 3 project which is a new ground up core and shell office building that is 390,000 SF and has a construction cost of $60 million. On this particular day, 25 partners from various trades were working on the site, and to date more than 900 workers have contributed their hard work towards getting the project completed.

Most of the girls, seated around conference tables, had already donned their hardhats and goggles. In turn, each girl shared her thoughts about a future career. Their aspirations ranged from biomedical engineer to architect to astronomer to FBI agent to dolphin trainer.

The group then walked across a parking lot from Dunn’s office to the construction site. Pennick and safety manager Tyler Snell told the girls to put away their cell phones and watch their footing as they entered the site, where although well-kept and generally safe, it still holds the potential for encounters with scrap lumber, discarded nails, and other detritus common to any construction site.

They then took the group up an outside lift to the roof garden atop the 16-story building. Next, they went down a few floors to see what a more unfinished project looked like. The sounds of hammers and mechanical saws echoed through the unfinished area.

Nicole Mendoza, a senior at Lincoln High School and CEC Middle College, took it all in.

“It’s all pretty cool,” she said with an approving nod. While not ready to commit to a career in the construction industry, she said had learned a lot from what she saw, and that the visit had at least opened her mind to the possibility.

At Colorado Succeeds we say if you can see, you can be it. JE Dunn is helping young women across Colorado see themselves one day pursuing a career in construction, which is one of Colorado’s most in-demand fields and a viable pathway to the middle-class.

photo of
Ashley Andersen