A League Of Extraordinary Women

A new program hopes to attract girls to engineering

All too few girls consider engineering as a career, and the profession is the poorer for it, as talented individuals seek vocations elsewhere. But a new program is in the works in the United States to attract young women to engineering--and to keep them in the career.

Dubbed the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project, the program is being driven by a nationwide coalition of professional engineering societies, including the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the IEEE, and the National Academy of Engineering, as well as universities and technology companies.

The program aims to make the general public, especially girls, aware of the importance of engineering in everyday life. It plans to release a book and a television documentary on women in engineering in 2006 and 2007, respectively. It also plans to air radio shows and to develop resources for guidance counselors, teachers, and parents--people who influence girls as they are making college and career decisions.

The Extraordinary Women Engineers Project, based in Reston, Va., is the brainchild of Patricia D. Galloway, past president of the ASCE, who herself needed a strong streak of stubbornness to get teachers and some family members to take seriously her junior-high school aspirations to be an engineer. Later, during her career, Galloway [see photo, " Engineering Champion"] noticed that the number of practicing female civil engineers was holding steady, even though women were increasingly choosing the major in college, implying that other women were leaving the fold.

Then, in 2001, she noticed another disturbing thing: university enrollment of female engineering students was going down. "I've been on a crusade since then," she says. "We need [to know] why there are so few women...provide a vehicle for women to go into engineering, and [show them] that it's a cool thing to do."

Today, 23 percent of all engineering graduates are women, a much smaller percentage than those in medicine and law, says Tom Price, a senior vice president at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, in White Plains, N.Y.; Price is on the Extraordinary Women Engineers steering committee.

To increase that percentage, various organizations, universities, and companies have already started programs to encourage young women to choose engineering careers. Included in this group are the Society of Women Engineers, Ohio State University, Princeton University, and IBM.

But the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project is different. "It is more comprehensive," Price says. "It starts with the basis that we don't know anything about 13-year-olds and suggests how we can build our program on where they are, not where we think they should be."

To find out where the teens are, the program's members have already begun the spadework, even though the project won't be officially launched until early next year. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, in Arlington, Va., and the United Engineering Foundation, in Mount Vernon, Va., members interviewed and surveyed high school girls to assess what is keeping them from engineering. Between June 2004 and January 2005, they conducted an online focus group and an online survey, with 84 and 165 high school girls, respectively, chosen from a national sample of students representing a mix of ethnic backgrounds.

No one had ever talked to teenage girls about this before, says Galloway, now CEO of the Nielsen-Wurster Group Inc., an engineering and management consultancy in Princeton, N.J. People had assumed that girls don't choose engineering because of their perception that engineers lead boring and isolated lives, but there had been no real data to support that notion. The survey found the assumption to be true. (The survey is now available online at http://www.engineeringwomen.org/pdf/EWEPFinal.pdf.)

It also showed that one reason girls overlook engineering is that they want jobs that will make a difference in the world by affecting poverty, health care, and the environment. They choose professions such as law, medicine, and biology, which they feel have more potential to change society. "The way engineering is projected nowadays, we don't emphasize that connection" to society, says Linda Katehi, dean of engineering at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., and an advisory board member for the project.

What's more, a majority of girls don't understand what engineers do. It's relatively easier to define what doctors and lawyers do, Price says. Many survey participants thought of engineers as having dull lives and being stuck in cubicles all day--picture Dilbert, the comic-strip character. They think engineering isn't "cool," Katehi says, which makes it less acceptable to peers.

Katehi believes that the project's flagship book will challenge that view. Coming out next year, Women Engineers: Extraordinary Stories of How They Changed Our World contains richly illustrated biographies of famous women engineers who've made a difference in the profession, from the 1920s to the present.

Designed as a coffee-table book, it starts with the example of the human body as a vehicle to describe women in such fields as biomedical engineering and genetic engineering, showing how they are participating in important work being done in medicine, sports, and agriculture. Role models range from 70-year-old ceramic engineer Anna Fraker, who studied materials for surgical implants, to 35-year-old Jennifer West, a biomedical engineer who worked on a cancer treatment using nanoparticles to burn out tumors.

The book then takes readers through aspects of daily life, describing how engineering has affected the things we use and enjoy every day. The wide-ranging discussion covers household appliances, drinking water, music, movies, the Internet, television, cars, and airplanes, and finally space exploration, showing how women have contributed to each of these areas. It also talks about the engineers' hobbies and personal lives, contesting the Dilbert stereotype.

The Extraordinary Women Engineers Project plans to distribute the book to high school counselors and teachers, and through them to students. It will also send the book to counseling offices in engineering schools. Later, a shorter version for parents and families might be published, Katehi adds.

While the book and other educational materials are aimed at changing the perception of engineering among girls, they are targeting other audiences as well. A crucial reason girls shun engineering is because they're not encouraged to think about it. Teachers, parents, and counselors "haven't got a clue what engineering is about," says Price. As a result, when most girls choose the profession, it's because, in part, they already know someone in it. The project seeks to attract girls to engineering who don't have that advantage--or the stubbornness that Galloway had in junior high.

About the Author

PRACHI PATEL-PREDD is a freelance writer who covers technology, energy, and the environment.

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