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WISEr women

CSE is fostering an environment for female undergraduates to succeed

Written by Susan Maas

 

If her father wasn’t an engineer, Adeola Isola doubts she would have seen it as a career possibility for herself. “I probably would have become a doctor or something,” said Isola, a senior majoring in electrical engineering. “You just don’t see a lot of females in this field.”

Isola’s family moved to Minnesota from Nigeria six years ago. In Nigeria, as in the United States, women are underrepresented in engineering. That’s why she was so excited when she came to the University of Minnesota as a community college transfer student—to find a role model who looked like her.

“One of the things I was so glad to see when I first got to the U was an African-American female professor, Rhonda Franklin. It really helps to see more female professors in engineering,” Isola said.

Hiring more professors who are women and/or people of color is one of many ways the College of Science and Engineering is working to diversify its historically homogeneous student body. According to Susan Kubitschek, CSE assistant dean of Collegiate Life, the efforts are bearing fruit. In the past decade, the percentage of incoming women in the college has grown from 19.5 percent to nearly 30.7 percent for Fall 2016.

 

Outreach, support, mentorship

“Given that the University’s overall student body is 51 percent female, there is still plenty of room for improvement,” Kubitschek said. However, the encouraging trend suggests CSE’s efforts are paying off. The college’s strategy to increase the number of women grads includes thoughtfully designed K-12 outreach, support programs, mentorship opportunities, leadership development, and more.

According to the National Girls’ Collaborative Project, in 2013 just 19.3 percent of all engineering degrees and 17.9 percent of all computer science degrees went to women in the U.S. Meanwhile, women earned more than half of all bachelor’s degrees in the biological sciences. Theories abound about why.

 

“Some studies have suggested that women tend to be drawn to careers that promote societal good,” Kubitschek said. She believes the more engineering fields can communicate their importance in improving the world, the better. “Women really need to see how the work is going to impact, in the long run, the human condition,” she said.

 

“That’s part of the reason there are relatively larger percentages of women in majors like biomedical engineering, industrial and systems engineering, environmental engineering, and chemistry that have more obvious humanitarian relevance.”

Defying subtle messages

Stereotyping, socialization, and unconscious bias also account for the relative dearth of women in some fields. As Isola puts it, “A lot of girls grow up with the idea that ‘math is not for me.’” According to Kubitschek, that notion is subtly, if unintentionally, perpetuated in all kinds of environments.

“Recently, one faculty member came to me and said, ‘We need more women to choose this major.’ I said, ‘What are you doing to reach women?’ The first thing I did was pull up their home page. It was a photo of four white guys in a lab and the background was blue,” Kubitschek recalls. “I said, ‘Simple things like gender-neutral background colors—how about maroon and gold?—including photos of women and people of color would also help.’”

Kubitschek isn’t just concerned about increasing the number of women who apply and are accepted to CSE, she’s just as focused on retaining those women. A 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that group dynamics in male-dominated undergraduate engineering classes can discourage female students, who often end up marginalized, even patronized by their majority-male classmates.

“When women enter CSE, that’s when the real work begins. What can we do to support them? This is something I’ve been very passionate about,” Kubitschek said. “Corporate America experiences some of the same issues as higher

education. We want to retain 100 percent of our female students, and we’re doing whatever we can to make that happen.”

Here are a few examples of what the College of Science and Engineering is doing to increase, support, and retain the number of women and students of color who are interested in pursuing science and engineering degrees.

WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) Initiative

Many female students who are new to CSE are busy and stressed with classes and homework. They would like to join a student group for the connection and support, but can’t commit the time on an ongoing basis.

The Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Initiative was designed for these students.

“There are several great student organizations for women,” said Dorothy Cheng, scholarship coordinator in CSE and a WISE co-leader, “but not everyone can be part of them at any given time. WISE isn’t a specific group that you have to join. We offer connection and community through events. Students love that you can pick and choose—you can go to every WISE event or just one.”

WISE sponsors panel discussions, informal study groups, a book club, and other activities for CSE women who often sit in male-dominated classes and long to spend time with their female peers across the college. WISE is deliberate about “not duplicating things that are already being done,” Cheng said. “The initiative often highlights the efforts of existing student groups.”

WISE took its name from the WISE House, a Living Learning Community in the University’s Frontier Hall for female CSE students. About 30 to 40 women live in the WISE House each year.

The initiative began three years ago as a means to give female students another way “to find their community and their network,” said Kubitschek. With input from three student representatives, Cheng and WISE co-leader Madalyn Radlauer, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry, seek to offer learning, solidarity, and networking opportunities for women across the college. WISE programs and events are developed and offered based on student feedback, including that gleaned on social media, and from a 2016 survey of female CSE students.

Linnea“Students want to know more about research. They want to know more about career services—how to interview, how to write a resume. They want to connect with the professional engineers who are out there doing it,” Cheng said. “They want to hear about the experience of being a woman in science and engineering.” For instance, during Homecoming Week, WISE hosted a weeklong spotlight on research, with eight female faculty members and graduate students offering research talks and lab tours.

WISE also coordinates a popular mentorship program, pairing 79 female graduate students with 79 undergraduates. Junior Linnea Savereide, a bioproducts and biosystems engineering major who is one of three WISE student representatives, says each mentor/mentee relationship is unique.

“WISE provides a gift card to go get coffee. But there are no rules, no ‘you have to meet once a week,’” Savereide explains. As Cheng puts it, that’s in keeping with the overall WISE approach. “We’re trying to be responsive to students’ needs, not prescriptive.”

Events hosted through the WISE Initiative can be as general as relieving stress at a restorative yoga class to building leadership skills at a one-day Catalyst seminar. Savereide hopes that newer students find WISE offerings as helpful as she did. From study sessions to purely social gatherings, the initiative helped her feel truly at home in CSE.

“I loved that they would email me and say, ‘Come and have free food with nice people.’ And they’d always deliver — I never met anyone at a WISE event that I didn’t like,” Savereide said. “It’s nice to meet and invite other students who you’re not super close with yet. ‘Hey, want to go grab appetizers and talk to other girls who like physics?’ All of a sudden, you have a new friend you have something in common with and to do homework with.”

Connecting women

Coming from a community college, electrical and computer engineering senior Adeola Isola was a bit daunted when she transferred to the College of Science and Engineering. The size of the campus, the fact that her major—electrical engineering is disproportionately male—left her without a support network, both could have led her to feel isolated. “Feeling alone makes it easy to quit,” Isola said. “Coming here and finding women who were experiencing the same things was definitely helpful.”

She did that through several student groups, including ECE (Electrical and Computer Engineering) Women in Engineering. “The support is great. We’re able to study together and to figure out problems together,” Isola said. “There were times I would second-guess myself and think that this just isn’t for me. Then you would hear from a working engineer, ‘I went through the same struggles. You’re going to get through it just fine.’”

Isola has been a member of other student groups, including the University's Solar Vehicle Project team—an experience she calls “really cool.” But it’s her experiences with ECE Women in Engineering, including her stint as secretary last year, that have been uniquely helpful in giving her opportunities to socialize and network with other engineering women.

Isola, who came to Minnesota from Lagos, Nigeria in 2011 says she would like to use her engineering skills to help those back home. “I want to find the most efficient and best way to help the power systems back home,” she said. “I would like to find better ways to get electricity to as many people as needed in Nigeria so having electricity can become more of a lifestyle and not a privilege.”

There are five student groups in CSE that support women: Alpha Sigma Kappa, the Association for Computing Machinery for Women, the Association for Women in Mathematics, ECE Women in Engineering, and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). According to Kubitschek, in addition to fostering connection, all are terrific vehicles for leadership development.

 

“Employers tell us that what they want from our science and engineering students are excellent communication and leadership skills,” Kubitschek said. “They want women, in the long run, to move into leadership roles.”

 

All together, the five groups serve more than 1,400 female CSE students. The largest group, SWE, has more than 250 members. “It’s an outreach and recruiting powerhouse,” Kubitschek adds, “bringing in girls from hundreds of high schools each year to learn about life as a woman in CSE. Women will find their sense of community here.”

Reaching out for STEM

Attracting young women to the College of Science and Engineering isn’t just about outreach to high school juniors and seniors. “That’s important,” said Kelsi Klaers, CSE outreach coordinator, “but it’s increasingly clear bringing more girls—more kids generally—into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) means reaching out to middle school and elementary school students.”

GraceGrace Aysta, a sophomore studying electrical and computer engineering, can attest to that statement. Aysta, who participated in one of CSE’s outreach technology camps as a young student, worked with Klaers as an outreach assistant and CSE camp counselor last summer. In that role, she researched the question of when and why many students disengage from math and science. “A lot of it happens around third grade. That’s when you start either thinking science is really cool, or nerdy and dorky,” Aysta said.

The college’s Math and Science Family Fun Fair, an annual all-day “pop-up museum,” is geared toward Twin Cities area elementary school students, Klaers said. This year’s event, which was held in November, included robots, papermaking, a 3-D tour of the solar system, and more.

For middle-school students, the college offers the free, one-day CSE Expo. Now in its fourth year, the student-run spring event features robotics demos, a brain exhibit, flight simulators, and more than 25 hands-on projects developed by current CSE students. Last spring, nearly 2,000 middle-school students attended.

CSE offers deeper, more intensive STEM experiences with a variety of summer camps. All promote what Klaers calls the “grittiness factor,” which is the value of persistence, of trying and failing and trying again, as well as a growth mindset. “What we mean by growth mindset is using the approach, ‘I can be better at math’ instead of ‘I’m bad at math.’ Women are harder on themselves, and it starts very young. Math is for everyone and we’re not perpetuating that storyline anymore.”

CSE’s newest summer day camp combines math and biology for girls and was created by associate professor of mathematics Jasmine Foo. Called “Girls Solve It!,” the academically competitive camp aimed at 11th and 12th grade girls explores the role of mathematical modeling in treating disease. It includes hands-on lab experiments, lectures, and lab tours. In 2016, its first year, 32 high-achieving students were admitted to the camp—several more than it had the capacity for.

The college’s Discover STEM day camp is also designed for 11th and 12th graders. Last year, Discover STEM served a total of 50 students over two weeklong sessions. Aysta had attended an earlier version of that camp after her junior year of high school. Last summer, she helped run the camp and enjoyed seeing younger girls grow in similar ways.

“As a high school participant, the biggest thing I got out of it was seeing myself on a college campus,” Aysta said. “It felt really natural. I could see myself working in a lab here.” She found it rewarding as she came full circle working with last summer’s attendees who visualized themselves as University of Minnesota students.

“I tried to be clear that you don’t need to know exactly what you want to do for a career,” Aysta said. “In our camps, we don’t ask ‘What do you want to major in?’” she said. “We ask, ‘What problems do you want to solve?’”

CSE’s largest and most ambitious camp, Eureka!, is offered in partnership with the Minneapolis YWCA's Girls Inc. The five-year summer and school year program for underrepresented middle-school girls from the Twin Cities offers an opportunity to explore STEM careers and prepares them for the next steps in their post-secondary education. The program has had a 93 percent retention rate, compared to 79 percent nationally. Eighty percent of the participants identify themselves as girls of color, and one in three of the girls will be the first generation of their families to attend college. “We want to provide young students with a rich experience with, we hope, lasting impact,” Klaers said. “Our goal is to motivate students toward STEM, showing them real-world connections, and helping them see that science and engineering can be a viable career for them.”