Putting out the welcome mat

Engineering schools still struggle to attract women.

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Print this page by Gary Robertson

If you’re a female engineering student, you’re part of a small minority.

Women earned only 18.4 percent of the undergraduate engineering degrees awarded in 2011 — the latest year for which figures are available.

Industry leaders say the nation desperately needs more homegrown engineers and scientists to keep up with its international competitors.
Dean Oktay Baysal of the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology at Old Dominion University knows exactly what needs to be done: “We must recruit more women to engineering.”

And, if we don’t? “Catastrophic,” Baysal says. “If we’re ignoring that population, then we’re ignoring the diversity of thinking and the diversity of solutions that women bring to the table.”

Baysal acknowledges that his university, as most others, hasn’t done a good job of recruiting women to its engineering programs.
Only about 15 percent of ODU engineering students are women, a rate lower than the national average of 20 percent. “I’m not proud of it,” Baysal says.

All-girl classes
Baysal is one of many Virginia education leaders urging efforts to interest girls in engineering before they get to college.

These efforts involve the creation of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) academies throughout the state.

One example is the New Commonwealth Governor’s STEM Academy at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of technology jobs in the country.

Joan Ozdogan, a career experience specialist at the academy, says it has been able to interest girls in engineering through optional, all-girls classes.

Classes introducing high school students to engineering once were 98 percent male, an environment that proved daunting to many girls, who quickly dropped out, she says.

Since the all-girls classes began, however, interest and enrollment has soared.

“Over the past six years, just under 150 girls who have completed the GE2 [Girls Exploring Engineering] program graduated high school,” Ozdogan says.

“Of these graduates, 84 percent of the girls are currently university undergraduate engineering students or have graduated from engineering schools.”

She emphasized that the all-girls classes give students an opportunity to help and support each other. The “girls exploring engineering” program also puts power tools into the girls’ hands and teaches them basic technical skills, which Ozdogan says helps them catch up with the experiences that many boys may have already had.

“We’re making a difference in girls’ lives. Am I graduating an engineer? No,” Ozdogan says. “My goal is to help that young woman self-identify as an engineer. We want her to be self-confident and have basic technical skills.”

Record enrollment at Tech
Bevlee Watford, associate dean for academic affairs at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, has been involved in similar grass-roots efforts, including engineering summer camps for girls and outreach to middle and high school students.

The result: This fall’s engineering class will be 23 percent women. “This is an all-time high,” says Watford.

Virginia Tech has found that clustering women in engineering classes helps them persevere through the curriculum. Another boost came from the creation of a first-year, all-women engineering residential community called Hypatia.

“We created Hypatia in 2001 with 40 freshmen. It’s now grown to over 100 freshmen,” Watford says. “You have someone in your room taking the same classes, struggling with the same courses and the same problems. It’s very empowering.”

To date, 913 women have participated in Hypatia. Among the participants, 80 percent have graduated or still are enrolled in a full-time engineering program, Watford says.

Role models
If clustering women in the same classes and in the same residence halls helps advance them toward a career in engineering, is there more that can be done?

“Role models,” says Pamela Norris, associate dean for research and graduate program at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at the University of Virginia.

About 31 percent of the students in the school of engineering are women — far above the national average of about 20 percent — but only about 14 percent of the faculty are women.

Norris directs a program at U.Va. aimed at increasing the number of women faculty in engineering and the sciences, utilizing a five-year $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

One of the problems in attracting more women to engineering, she says, is that engineers haven’t explained themselves very well. “I honestly think we do a horrible job of describing what we do,” says Norris, a mechanical engineer.

She, for example, didn’t choose the profession out of fondness for gears but because she thought the field could benefit society. “I would describe engineering as problem solving to design a better future,” Norris says.

Different views
Olga Pierrakos agrees with that description for women engineers.  An associate professor in the School of Engineering at James Madison University, Pierrakos has spent the past several years studying why students enter engineering and why they leave it.

“Male students come to see engineering as building things,” she says. “Women see the creative side of engineering and how it can help people.”

For women, Pierrakos adds, the level of pay does not seem to be an overriding factor, while it’s a driver for men.

A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that engineering graduates earn starting salaries far above those with other majors.  A petroleum engineer, for example can expect a starting salary of $93,500.

Female dean at VCU
The ultimate role model for female engineering students may be a female engineering school dean. Barbara Boyan became dean of the VCU School of Engineering last year after serving as associate dean for research and innovation at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

She says one of her main priorities is to make the engineering school a welcoming place for women as well as for men.

Her overriding goal, however, is to attract more students to engineering and to produce highly qualified engineering graduates.

Boyan believes a television show about engineers, perhaps drawing from the best elements of two hit shows that already have scientists in their cast —“CSI” and “The Big Bang Theory” — would be a boon to the profession. “It would say to the cool kids, this is a career.”

But so far, Hollywood hasn’t come calling.

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