InTrans / Dec 05, 2023

BEC’s Phares visits Valley High to share advice

A career in structural engineering can take you anywhere.

In late November, it took Bridge Engineering Center Research Engineer Brent Phares to Erika Weih’s Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus class at Valley High School in West Des Moines.

Phares spoke to about 50 students, composed of sophomores to seniors from Weih’s and Jana Edwards’ math classes, about how his career path and life experiences led to him talking to the class.

“It’s a valuable part of my work to do this sort of outreach, not just to champion the engineering program at Iowa State but more importantly to offer insights to students who are about to enter college about the realities of the next step in their education,” Phares said after the event.

Thus, Phares kept his biographical introduction brief while students gorged on delivery pizza and instead invited students to ask what they really want to know from an experienced academic, businessman, and engineering practitioner.

The students offered thoughtful questions about what comes next for them as they enter higher education—such as how much calculus is required for an engineering major, the reasons Phares pursued master’s and doctorate degrees, and how quickly they have to choose a major or engineering track.

Throughout the discussion, Phares told the students some secrets to their ultimate success—good communication is key, and slogging through advanced calculus courses is more about showing they can do the work than the actual amount of math they’ll do upon graduation—based on his life experiences.

He also made clear that the AP Calculus students are likely more prepared to enter any college of engineering, though preferably at Iowa State, than he was when he began at Iowa State as an undergraduate.

“Our students really appreciate hearing an outside voice about what to expect in STEM fields and how to jump start their careers in engineering,” Weih said after the visit.

It wasn’t all serious questions, though. Other questions involved Phares’ love of soccer—Valley High School’s soccer coach Aziz Haffar also coached Phares and the two remain friends—and the importance of balancing a rigorous academic course load with having a social life.

Phares also turned the tables on the students, asking how many were interested in pursuing engineering, where the seniors were considering applying for college, and what other fields the students were considering outside of engineering.

“I had the privilege of coaching Brent from 1987 to 1990. During that time, he displayed strong leadership qualities in soccer, showcasing skills like teamwork and motivation. Presently, Brent extends his leadership beyond soccer by engaging in outreach at Valley High School and throughout the entire Waukee school district,” Haffar said. “His involvement in community activities, particularly those benefiting high school students, illustrates his commitment to making a positive impact beyond the sports arena. Brent’s leadership influence reaches a broader scale, contributing positively to the community.”

Phares also invited the students to stay in touch as they consider their career paths in engineering or if they will join the Cyclone nation as they enter higher education.

“It’s a joy to be able to pass along advice to students, and hear from the next generation of engineers and other professionals about their interests,” Phares added.