Schools say a feminine touch is critical to the future of engineering
- July 1, 2008
by Heather B. Hayes
Sharnnia Artis had all the right attributes for a budding engineer. She excelled in math and science classes and was extremely inquisitive, always wanting to know how things worked.
Still, as a young African-American girl growing up in Chesapeake, Artis knew no engineers and had little sense of what the job might involve. The idea of becoming an engineer didn’t occur to her until her junior year in high school. That was when she learned about a summer camp at Virginia Tech that gave girls a chance to learn the basics of engineering. She decided to give it a try. “I realized during that time that I could design and develop products and solve problems that would have an impact on the quality of people’s lives,” she says.
Artis went on to study industrial and systems engineering and eventually earned her doctorate at Virginia Tech. Now 28, she is a human factors engineer for Aptima, a Boston-area engineering firm, where she works to improve the safety and usability of products and systems.
While inspiring, this type of success story is all too rare for officials at Virginia engineering schools. They see the recruitment of women as critical to the future of engineering. They believe women, a historically underrepresented population in the profession, can help bridge the growing gap between supply and demand for engineers. “There is no fundamental reason that women should not be in engineering and represented in the same proportion as they are in law and medicine,” says Russ Jamison, dean of the School of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s not inherently a gender-driven discipline.”
Schools have discovered, however, it’s not easy to persuade women to study a discipline that is male-dominated, math-intensive and extremely rigorous. Virginia Tech’s School of Engineering has had a program devoted to recruiting women and minority students since 1992. Nonetheless, women still made up only 15 percent of total engineering enrollment last year.
The student body at the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology at Old Dominion University is 18 percent female, while 15 percent of VCU engineering students are women.
“Our society has said in so many ways that engineering is not for women for so many years that it’s hard to overcome that,” says Bevlee Watford, director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. To address these historical and cultural barriers, engineering schools are developing strategies to better educate women on the opportunities and benefits that an engineering career provides.
ODU is relying on female engineers at NASA and local companies to mentor women engineering majors and to talk to high school students. Virginia Tech will continue its summer camps for high school girls, but it hopes to bring prospects to campus at least once a semester to learn more about engineering.
Officials at the Volgeneau School of Information Technology and Engineering at George Mason University (GMU) are trying to reach students at an increasingly younger age, says Lloyd Griffiths, the school’s dean. He has been sending his brightest students to local middle school classrooms. These include Mariana Cruz, 19, a rising junior studying civil engineering who decided to become an engineer after taking introductory engineering courses at Chantilly Academy during her senior year in high school. “She’s articulate, she’s excited about being an engineer and you send her to talk to these students, and that enthusiasm just transmits,” Griffiths says. “They’re going to relate to someone like her a lot more than an aging white male like myself telling them that they should be engineers.”
Schools also are changing their marketing strategies in recognition that women are different from men in their work styles and personal interests. Women like to solve problems using a team-approach and can be highly creative. They bring a more empathic, nurturing perspective to problems. And they like to know how a solution will affect human problems.
As a result, women tend to gravitate to engineering fields with a high-human touch, such as biomedical and environmental engineering. That is one reason why 25 percent of the 2008 freshman class at James Madison University’s new Engineering Department will be women, well beyond the national average of 17.4 percent. The school’s main focus is environmental sustainability.
“It’s a subject that’s easy to relate to,” says Ron Kander, director of JMU’s School of Engineering. He expects women eventually will represent 33 percent of the engineering students as word about the program gets out. “And all the research that we’ve seen in literature shows that if you can relate the engineering skill sets to the human problem you’re going to solve, it’s going to be more attractive to women, especially when they’re 18 years old.”
Sweet Briar program
Sweet Briar College, which started its engineering department almost three years ago, also has done better than expected by putting the emphasis on the life-changing possibilities of engineering. This fall, the program will have 25 students spread over three years.
Hank Yochum, the engineering department’s director, says that although some questioned the logic of an engineering school at a small women’s college, the environment appeals to women who might otherwise shy away from engineering programs. “We have high standards just like any other school, but we get to really know them and they get to know us, so they feel a lot more comfortable saying that they need help and asking questions,” Yochum says.
Jamison at VCU says it’s going to take time for schools to persuade large numbers of women to view engineering as a viable career path. But it’s important to persist, he says, especially as the field continues to adjust to a work environment that relies on integrated teams. To prepare students for that kind of environment, VCU has developed the da Vinci Center for Innovation in Product Design and Development. The center brings together students from engineering, business and design to work on product development projects for local companies. “Women add value in a way that is distinctively integrated with a woman’s way of thinking about problems and talking about problems and creating dialogue within a group,” Jamison says. “As a result, we believe that women add an intellectual dimension and a social dimension to problem-solving which makes the process better just by their involvement.”