CIRCLE OF SUPPORT
By Margaret Loftus
Although she excelled at both math and science in high school, Jenny Moerschbacher never gave much thought to becoming an engineer. "I could also write and talk to people," she explains, which had her leaning toward a major in business or economics. It wasn't until she learned about Lafayette College's interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in engineering that she realized the field might actually suit her skills perfectly-a decision that was reinforced in her junior year when she traveled to a Central American country with a team from Lafayette's chapter of Engineers Without Borders to work on a project bringing clean water to two villages. "I liked that I could have an effect on people's lives," Moerschbacher says. "That was really cool to me."
Such enthusiasm for interdisciplinary studies and service projects hasn't been lost on engineering programs as they scramble to find new ways to engage and retain more young women like Moerschbacher. Indeed, some schools have seen their numbers of women graduates inch up beyond the national average of 20 percent by shedding rigid curricula and culture in favor of more programs like these. As the United States struggles with a dearth of engineers and increasingly complex problems for them to solve, putting out the welcome mat for women is more important than ever, explains Gary Gabriele, director of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Engineering Education and Centers. "Problems that engineers will face in the future are so complex and multidimensional that it doesn't make sense to solve them with a group of people who essentially have one common background and perspective."
Step one is building a strong community for undergraduate women to help alleviate that all-too-familiar sense of isolation common among female engineers. "Every day you get subtle messages that you don't belong, and after a while you start to question yourself because it's not something blatant," says Betty Shanahan, president of the Society of Women Engineers. "One of the things that helps to counter that is just being with other women and realizing what you're experiencing is normal. It's a humongous relief."
At Pennsylvania State University, the foundation for that community is laid even before school starts. The university's Women in Engineering Program's three-day orientation matches freshmen with a mentor and a group of peers in the same major. Computer engineering major Lanlan Wang remembers feeling nervous at first, but she says, "The moment I walked into the program, my mentor knew my face." By the time classes roll around, the girls know each other and many have become pals. "I made a lot of good friends that I still keep in touch with now," Wang says.
Penn State and others further strengthen those bonds by giving their female students the option of living in all-engineering residence halls. About 20 years ago, Cinda-Sue Davis, the director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program at the University of Michigan-which boasts a 27 percent graduation rate for women engineers-got the idea for the school's WISE residence program after hearing a male colleague reminisce about living in an engineering fraternity house in college. "Forty guys lived in the house-that meant if someone failed out, they'd be stuck with splitting their share of rent, so they helped each other out with homework and advice on which professors to take," Davis explains. While there's no threat of eviction if one of these students drops out, the 150 women who live on Michigan's WISE residence floor have a positive influence on each other nonetheless. "If they want to study calculus on a Friday night, they can do that and no one will put them down," Davis says. "And if they want to party, they just have to go down a floor."
Part of the mix in most programs is formal mentoring. Besides helping with schoolwork and advice, upperclassman mentors serve as role models to freshmen who may feel overwhelmed by the engineering workload. Even though she was at the top of her class in high school, recent Penn State bioengineering grad Erica Zerfoss says she still had her doubts about succeeding academically. "Having a mentor was great because the fact that she had made it made me feel I could do it, too."
Not surprisingly, a few open faculty office doors can make a huge difference in whether a student sticks around or not. At Lafayette, where women make up more than 25 percent of engineering graduates, an open-door policy is de rigueur. "We expect faculty to be mentors, and that means that the doors are open and students can come and talk to us about not just academia but anything in their extracurricular lives," says Director of Engineering Jim Schaffer. "When I came to Lafayette, I was shocked at how much time I spent talking to students and how much learning occurred in that setting."
In the electrical computer engineering department of Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, faculty members host potluck dinners every month. It's important for students to see that professors, particularly women, are human, says Duke's engineering dean, Kristina Johnson. "When times get tough in any institution, having that personal understanding of other people really pays off dividends."
More Than Mentoring
But support programs alone can't do it all. Research shows that women have different learning styles from men. Women tend to thrive in project-based learning rather than lecture courses, especially when there's teamwork involved. As a result, schools are introducing design courses as early as the freshman year to give students a taste of what engineering is really like. At the University of Michigan, for example, students in marine engineering professor Lorelle Meadows' Engineering 100 section build a greenhouse for nonprofit groups. "The class seems to attract far more women and minority students," WISE's director, Davis, says.
Whether it's in a design class or a research project, an element of altruism has always been a big draw for women. "Engineering has to make explicit the societal value of engineering work, and that has had a disproportionate impact for populations that have been traditionally a minority," says Norman Fortenberry, director of the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education at the National Academy of Engineering. "It translates to 'How is this going to help my community more than being a doctor or a lawyer?' We have those answers; we just need to provide them."
Some, like Tufts University electrical engineering professor Karen Panetta, have had no problem getting the word out. In its fourth year, her "Nerd Girls" senior capstone project has brought together a team of undergraduate women from different engineering disciplines to develop solarization for a lighthouse on Thacher Island off the coast of Massachusetts. The project incorporates much of what attracts women to engineering, including a positive social impact and interdisciplinary teamwork. The results have surprised even Panetta. Besides being a big confidence booster, she says, "I really see a massive increase in their academic performance because they know how to attack problems."
But Panetta is still a relative rarity in the world of engineering academia. Nationally only about 10 percent of tenure-track engineering faculty members are women. "Without women faculty, you aren't going to attract women to the field," says Duke's Johnson. While Pratt has tripled the number of women on its tenure-track faculty since 1999, Johnson is working to expand an innovative pilot recruitment program with the goal of having women make up 30 percent of tenure-track faculty. Working with Duke women's basketball coach Gail Goestenkors, Pratt has developed a recruiting style much like a college athletics department by identifying women as undergrads and cultivating them as they move on. "It's moving away from a very passive approach to a very interactive approach," explains Assistant Dean for New Inititiatives Marianne Risley.
While women have come a long way in engineering from the 1970s when they made up about 3 percent of undergrads, there's plenty of room for improvement, says Susan Metz, co-founder of Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN) and senior adviser at the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. For the next step, Metz suggests schools consider offering new disciplines within engineering. "We really need to broaden the opportunities. Think in terms of pathways instead of pipelines."
Peggy Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S. C.
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