Kathryn Baisley, Fluid Power Test Engineer for Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Fluid Power Institute, highlights the importance early exposure to STEM courses had on her education and career choices.
For Kathryn Baisley, a last-second decision to change her major led to a career in a field she didn’t know much about — fluid power. Baisley is a recent graduate of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where she enrolled to study biomedical courses but switched to mechanical engineering right before her freshmen year classes even began.
High school exposure to Project Lead the Way courses, which is STEM-focused curriculum, introduced her to the basics of engineering, CAD modeling, and kinematics. A pivotal moment occurred when she attended MSOE summer camp, solidifying her interest in engineering.
“We had a general engineering track, which was kind of cool, just an intro to CAD and how you might model things and the kinematics within CAD, so learning how things would fit together and how you can model that,” Baisley said. “I was a little indecisive about what track I was going to go on, but MSOE had all sorts of types of engineering. So even if you did change your mind once you were in school a little bit, you could still go into a different area of engineering because they have so many options.”
MSOE is probably the most well-known university for teaching fluid power courses, but Baisley didn’t have much exposure to the field until much later in her college career. Her education primarily focused on simulation software rather than the intricacies of Fluid Power systems. It wasn’t until she interned at the MSOE Fluid Power Institute in 2019 during her sophomore year that she delved deeper into this specialized field, setting the stage for her post-graduation career.
A career in testing
She joined a dedicated team of engineers and researchers specializing in fluid power research. The Fluid Power Institute operates in an industrial facility off-campus, focusing on testing hydraulic components for various manufacturers. Her unique perspective and fresh ideas brought a new dimension to the institute’s research projects.
As an intern, and now as a test engineer, Baisley’s journey was always very hands-on. She actively participated in the entire lifecycle of research projects, from design to implementation, troubleshooting, and improvement. This approach allowed her to develop a deeper understanding of fluid power systems and their applications.
“Working in the shop, running the tests, it’s really cool being able to see it start from the ground up. Being here for the design phase and then all of the builds and getting it online, implementation, it’s great to see how things change throughout that process too,” Baisley said. “We’ll be planning something for months, and then once we start working with it, we’re like, ‘There’s a better way to do this.’”
One of the standout projects in Baisley’s career has been the development of a piston test rig designed to evaluate piston seals for Hallite. This project involved not only mechanical aspects but also required her to delve into the realm of electrical engineering. She built the control cabinet for the test rig. An electrical engineering student and staff electrical engineer did most of the PLC programming. However, by the time the test stand was operational, both of them were gone, so she had to finalize things with the PLC programming, which was a first for her. The project’s complexity pushed her boundaries, from brazing tubes to field wiring and calibration.
Having worked in the fluid power research field for a few years now, Baisley said she wishes she had more exposure to the industry in her undergraduate years.
“I feel like it’s definitely an area of engineering that doesn’t get a ton of attention. I guess now, everything is sort of moving towards robotics and AI, and that’s what the kids in school are really more excited about,” she said. “But being in that mindset about what I could do in the fluid power world throughout all those classes in school, It would’ve been kind of cool to know what’s out there and how the stuff that I was learning would be beneficial in the real world instead of just whatever we’re applying it to in that class.”
Empowering future engineers
Baisley’s journey highlights the importance of encouraging young people, especially women and minorities, to consider careers in engineering. She acknowledges the existing gender disparity in engineering but emphasizes the need to start early in exposing children to technical and hands-on experiences. She believes that practical, real-world projects can inspire and build confidence in young minds, helping them see the value of their technical education.
“Starting when kids are young in school and just showing them a more technical side of things, a more hands-on side of things is so necessary,” Baisley said. “I feel like it’s really daunting when you’re just learning all of the theory and never knowing how it’s going to be applied.
She thinks bringing back more shop and technical classes back into high schools gives you a more objective way of learning. “Seeing what you could actually be capable of if you have the technical background and why that math stuff would be good to know and how you can apply it, allows you to objectively build something and it’s working,” she said. “No one can tell you that it’s wrong, the proof is right there.”
Baisley’s message to aspiring engineers is clear: “don’t expect to know everything right out of university. Learning is a lifelong journey, and engineering is a dynamic field that continually evolves. Confidence is built through experience, and every engineer starts by learning something
Know that you’re not going to know everything on your first job and that going to a university is just the beginning of a lifelong path of learning,” she said. “You’re always going to be picking up new things. It’s just kind of the base for what you could do with the rest of your career. Don’t expect to know everything just because you graduated from university.”
An open future
What’s exciting for Baisley, is that she is constantly learning something new. For example, while cleaning one of the test stands with varnish cleaner, all the seals started eroding and melting. It quickly showed that the seals in the stand were not compatible with the varnish remover, which she didn’t know until they started to fail.
“I think it’s kind of amazing how much a seal will impact a system and just how many different parameters there are to test,” she said. “Before I was ever involved in fluid power, I wouldn’t have thought that so much went into this little seal design, whether it’s rod seal leakage or the friction, how it interacts with the material of the rod, the surface finish, but different kinds of oil and how much that affects something.”
Looking ahead, Baisley sees exciting prospects for fluid power research. The integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into data collection and analysis is on the horizon. Fluid power systems generate vast amounts of data during testing, and AI can help engineers identify trends, correlations, and hidden insights within this data.
“Right now we’re just sort of manually going through all the data that we collect. I think one of the graduate students is working on a better way to see trends because after we’ve tested upwards of two million cycles on that rod seal test with all different sorts of seals, we’ll have data from repeated tests, taking into account the surface finish of the rods, what temperature we’re running at, what other seals they’re running with, if that has any effect on it,” she said.
“It might be helpful to implement AI with that so you can look at all the different variables and see what had the most impact or any trends that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to a graduate student looking over all that data,” Baisley said. “And data, it is so important. You have all this data you’re collecting, but if you’re not doing the right things with it, it’s kind of a waste of time.”
Filed Under: Women in Fluid Power