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People of STEAM: Meet Karen

#PeopleofSTEAM is an ongoing blog series that highlights diverse voices in our community and the impacts they are making on the world of FIRST®, the world of STEAM, and/or in their own backyard.   


Karen is a Senior Product Engineer for Dual LockTM and Hook and Loop at 3MTM. Dual LockTM is used on every FIRST® LEGO League game mat each season! Karen has had a long history within the manufacturing industry since she started college. Throughout her career, she has been involved in engineering various products such as food products, metal finishings, roll labels, rubber commodities, and industrial fasteners.  

Continue reading to hear more about her experience with STEAM, and her advice for students who are just starting their STEAM journey. 

 K Hopperstad 1

FIRST Staff: Can you share some information about your current role at 3M?  

Karen: I’m a product engineer which means that I am responsible for the integrity of the products that I support. This includes things such as raw material inputs, processes used in making materials, understanding the full value chain of the product lines, quality of materials, and what the limits of the product are. 

I have also been an application engineer with 3M, which is very different from a product engineer in that the application engineer has customer responsibilities as the forefront of their role. That was a lot of fun as your expertise is used to solve customer problems on a daily basis. I chose to move away from this role as my real passion is understanding the product from zero to sold and everything that goes into making something unique.  

FIRST Staff: What is your favorite part of your current role as Product Engineer at 3M? 

Karen: My favorite part is that I own the responsibility of making many decisions impacting the product line. We have had, as have many industries, challenges with supply chain, which means that I am regularly evaluating sources of material to ensure that the continuity of the product can be maintained and we are best positioned to supply the quality products that our customers expect. This includes testing and retesting the products to verify their limits and that all our standards are met or exceeded. I really enjoy the data generation and analysis, which I use to support my decisions. 

FIRST Staff: What is the hardest part of your job?  

Karen: Waiting. It’s human nature to want results now, but scientific testing takes time. There are a huge variety of ways to evaluate the products that I support and sometimes that includes testing out to 2,000 hours (roughly 12 weeks). There is no way to speed that up as the results would not reflect actual conditions or practical situations. But the data is important, and I have to manage expectations on timelines which include long testing parameters. Building this into test plans is an important factor in where my energy is directed at what times of the projects.  

FIRST Staff: How do you use STEAM-learned skills in your everyday work/life?  

Karen: One of the critical aspects of my work is the connections that I have throughout the teams that work together to make the products that I support. When I was new to this role, I built out a connections map for myself which helps me know who to go to with questions, concerns or answers for the multiple plants, products and materials that I support. This has been a valuable tool for other people new to this team as well.  

FIRST Staff: Can you share your thoughts on the impact of your personal/professional work in STEAM?  

Karen: I am leaning into mentoring for people who are early in their professional career. There are many aspects of this that make me a better engineer in that I can see how a new, fresh perspective leads to innovation and conversely, I can provide some history on the “how and why” things are made the way that they are. Learning is a key factor for me nearly every day and it allows me to be open to opportunities that I might otherwise miss. 

FIRST Staff: Who is a “Person of STEAM” who inspires you?  

Karen: I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by many smart, engaging people of STEAM throughout my life. I really can’t narrow it down to anyone in particular. My family always encouraged curiosity and I think that is important in how I approach my work, I want to know how, why, what does it do, can we make it better?  

FIRST Staff: If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?  

Karen: Engage mentors sooner. Talk to a wide variety of people in different areas of your field and workplace. Learn about different roles, you might be surprised at what ends up being more interesting to you. 3M has great mentorship opportunities across many different areas and it took me a while to make use of it, but once I did, it really helped my mindset and drive. In fact, it was through mentorship that I made the move into product engineering instead of application engineering and I have been more excited about what I do ever since. 

FIRST Staff: Do you have a message you want to share for students who are participating in FIRST today? 

Karen: Very little gets done today without a team effort. Learn to be comfortable with a team environment and remember that people have different strengths which make a team work. Also, not everything you do will be successful, take a minute to learn from what didn’t work and use that to move forward. 

Are you a person of STEAM? Share your story with #PeopleofSTEAM on social media or send us your story at  

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