CSU works to close gender gap in engineering department

Nataleah Small

Historically, the engineering field has been male dominated. Dr. Susan James, the department head of mechanical engineering said the field has an “unwelcoming culture … and white male norm,” perpetuated by implicit bias and sexism.

But, CSU is making efforts to close the gender gap in the engineering department.

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As of spring 2016, 24.6 percent of full-time engineering students at CSU identified as female, according to CSU institutional research. Five years ago, 20 percent identified as female.

This fall semester, 45 percent of the students enrolled in the biomedical engineering program identify as women.

David McLean, Dean of the College of Engineering said the increase can be attributed to focused recruitment efforts made by the University.

These recruitment efforts include STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) high school outreach programs, the addition of a biomedical engineering major and support groups on campus.

“Women are told at a young age that they can’t do math,” said Odessa Noriega, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major. “Or, it is seen as less feminine to do math or science.”

Andrew Warnock is the Department Head and research scientist for the Education and Outreach Center in the College of Natural Sciences. Along with his colleagues, Warnock hosts a variety of educational outreach programs for K-12 students: The State Science and Engineering Fair, SCITREK, a summer program for students, STEM Fridays, Truinfo, an after school mentoring program for high-needs students and the Girls in STEM program.

Warnock uses these programs to teach young people about STEM fields. Warnock said he focuses on “[teaching] the teachers how to do hands-on science,” and bringing more females and students from diverse backgrounds into the sciences.

Warnock’s passion is teaching students about science. By showing children how to solve problems in new ways, he said he helps them gain a greater appreciation for the discipline.

“Sharing the joy of discovery with kids is the payoff … seeing their eyes light up when they finally understand something,” Warnock said.

Although little data has been collected on the direct correlation between participation in these programs and future enrollment at CSU, Warnock said they have gained popularity in recent years.

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In another effort to recruit more females and students from diverse backgrounds into engineering, the college introduced its biomedical engineering undergraduate, dual-degree program five years ago. In order to earn this degree, students are required to enroll in a secondary engineering major: electrical, chemical and biological, or mechanical. Carnegie Mellon is the only other university in the U.S. that has a similar program.

McLean said because dual-degree program’s rigor and broad scope, students are in high demand when they graduate from the program.

Overall, this program has been quite successful in recruiting more women into engineering, McLean said.

Stephanie Higgins, a senior mechanical engineering major is the president of the Society of Woman Engineers.

Higgins said she has heard jokes relating to related to the number of women in engineering classes many times throughout her academic career.

“It really doesn’t bother me,” Higgins said. “This is what I’m interested in, so I’m doing it because I want to do it. I’m there for the coursework, not the people … there is no hindrance by being female.”

 

Higgins emphasized that it is important to (bring more) women in(to) the field of engineering because it is such a broad field.

“You can do anything with it,” Higgins said.

The Society of Women Engineers is a student organization that provides academic, social and career support to female engineering students. The objective of the society is to connect female students with other females in the College of Engineering, provide scholarship and job opportunities, and aid members with their professional development.

The SWE accepts both male and female identifying students with an interest in advocating for women.

The SWE offers members the opportunity to attend a national engineering conference every October. At the conference, SWE members network with professionals in their field and seek internships and full-time work positions. Last year, six out of the twelve CSU SWE members that attended the conference were offered internships or jobs, Higgins said.

SWE also works with middle and high school-aged females by hosting community events. Last year, SWE held a 10-week course for girls interested in engineering. Higgins stated that the program helped empower students and get them excited about engineering. She said that girls who were timid during the beginning of the program were ready to “jump in” by the last week.

McLean said bringing more females into the fold has increased the diversity within the department.

“Diversity of perspectives and experiences help us to come up with better solutions than we have in the past,” McLean said.

Both McLean and Warnock said that diversity helps the field come up with better solutions to complex engineering problems.

“Getting more diversity is what we need to solve the world’s problems today,” Warnock said. “We’re not going to do it in the traditional way with one scientist in a lab coat in a lab working independently. We have multidisciplinary teams now trying to solve scientific problems and engineering problems.”

James said biases, sexism and prejudice will not disappear overnight, and it will take time to close the gender gap.

“We have made progress, but we still want to do better. We have more work to do,” McLean said.

Collegian reporter Nataleah Small can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @nataleahjoy.