When Maria Smiles was in 5th grade, she already knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“Even in my 5th grade journals I had written I wanted to be an engineer for NASA,” Smiles said. “I’ve always kind of gone towards that direction. I kind of jumped around between biomedical which is engineering that deals with the human body, but now I’ve gone more into the aerospace field.”
After graduating from Little Wolf High School in 2010, Smiles enrolled at UW-Platteville to pursue her engineering dreams. She is a second semester freshman and is studying engineering physics with a hybrid of electrical and mechanical engineering, along with applied physics.
She said she has always been good at math and science, and took a lot of those classes while attending Little Wolf High School.
On Friday, Oct. 21, Smiles made a return to Manawa, and spent a good portion of her day discussing engineering and doing experiments with students at the Manawa Elementary School. The day was setup because she had to do volunteer work for one of her college classes.
“I thought it would be great if I could come promote engineering since we don’t right now in Manawa. They’ve gotten rid of some of our Project Lead the Way classes which were digital electronics, engineering design, and some other classes,” Smiles said. “Those were the classes that really boosted me up into engineering. They made for sure that’s what I wanted to go into in high school. But now they are getting rid of them and some kids won’t know as much [about engineering]. Being from a small town I know some people don’t quite understand engineering so I’m just trying to promote it more.”
Smiles said around three percent of the engineers in the United States are women.
“They always talk about how women are not as good in math and science, and that is not true if you look at women going to college, especially right now,” Smiles said.
Scott Hahn, a 4th grade teacher at Manawa Elementary School, who had Smiles in one of his classes at one point, said that by Smiles spending time with the elementary students, it shows that she respects where she grew up and the teachers she had.
“She doesn’t know these kids, but to be able to give back is a big thing,” Hahn said.
Hahn said he also hopes the elementary students will learn something from Smiles.
“My hope is that it means a lot that someday they want to be that person who can come back when they’re in college and give back to their community and school,” Hahn said.
Smiles said she wants to build rockets someday, and it doesn’t surprise Hahn that Smiles has set high goals for herself.
“I think it’s great. And she should because she is that type of an individual who can set her goals at the top because she strives to achieve them and keeps working hard to get to where she needs to be,” Hahn said.
In addition, Hahn and Smiles’ mother, Carol, hope Maria’s visit helps the students realize that going to a small school doesn’t have to hold them back.
“I hope they take away that being from a small community, being from a small town like Manawa, you’re not limited to the things that you can do,” Hahn said. “When they see Maria going from little Manawa to Platteville, I hope they take away that don’t set your goals so low, and motivate yourself to get higher.”
Carol Smiles added, “I think it means a lot to her and to me because Manawa was very good to her. She really did get a good education. It’s a nice opportunity to give back to the community and also to get the kids excited about something in the stem field.”
Smiles has some advice for students as they consider what career they want to get into.
“You only have one life and you should really go out and do what you want with it,” Smiles said. “I’d love it if kids would keep going for their dreams.”