Providing opportunities for girls to learn about engineering can eventually increase diversity in the engineering workforce.
I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it’s science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent—to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.
President Barack Obama
April 27, 2009
National Academy of Sciences
Meeting the challenges in our increasingly complex and interconnected world will require the talents of all of us. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) recognizes the importance of reaching students early in their studies and providing them not only with an understanding of engineering but, equally important, an opportunity to explore engineering careers in a way that resonates with their interests and passions. As part of NAE’s commitment to increasing diversity in the engineering workforce and to improving the technological literacy of Americans, we have developed a website, www.EngineerGirl.org, to attract middle school and high school students, particularly girls, to engineering at a time in their lives when they are being asked to make important educational decisions (e.g., deciding whether or not to take algebra) that will have an impact on their career options and opportunities for years to come.
Although more than half of the nation’s population and a majority of students who earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees are women, in the past decade their representation in the engineering workforce has increased to only 12 percent, in stark contrast to their representation in other occupations (see Figure 1).
A survey of first-year students in all four-year colleges revealed that only 14.5 percent of male students and 2.5 percent of female students intend to major in engineering (NSF, 2009). The number of women among freshmen engineering students peaked at approximately 20 percent in 2001 and has stubbornly remained at that level, despite all efforts to attract them to the profession. As Table 1 shows, the disparity between male and female holds true for students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
What are the implications of these numbers? In Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century, a 2005 NAE report, a committee of experts noted that students with degrees in engineering are “technically grounded graduates” who are “prepared to work in a constantly changing global economy.” The lack of interest in engineering by both male and female students was underscored in an article in the June 3, 2009, issue of Forbes, “The 10 Hardest Jobs to Fill in America.” The author, Tara Weiss, reported that “for the second year in a row, engineer is the hardest job to fill in America.” She went on to quote Larry Jacobson, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers: “We have whole generations of people loving liberal arts, not going into science and math” . . . and he “anticipates a shortage of engineers into the foreseeable future” (Weiss, 2009).
Although no one knows what the future will bring in terms of workforce demands or new job opportunities, many would agree that students who are grounded in a technical field, such as engineering, with an equal emphasis on strong oral and written communication skills, will be well prepared to face the challenges of the future. An engineering degree provides an ideal background for improving critical thinking and problem solving skills that are important for success in all fields.
Current Data on Women in Engineering
Many people are not aware that women have earned the majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields since 2000 (NSF, 2009). Despite the overall increase in women pursuing undergraduate degrees in STEM majors, however, the percentages of female students who receive degrees in engineering has leveled off and even dropped over the last decade (Rosser and Taylor, 2008). From 2006 to 2007, the number of women who received bachelor’s degrees in engineering dropped to its lowest level since 1996 (Table 2).
The same is true of women in engineering at the graduate level. In 2005, 23 percent of master’s degrees in engineering were earned by women, although the percentage varies greatly by the field of engineering (40 percent of those were in bioengineering; only 14 percent were in mechanical and electrical engineering) (CPST, 2008).
Why Increase the Number of Women in Engineering?
There are many reasons for the poor representation of women in engineering, beginning in the very early years with lower expectations of female interest and competence in math, science, and engineering and the stereotype of engineering as a male-dominated profession that is not open or welcoming to women (Burke and Mattis, 2007).
Nevertheless, the lack of participation by women in engineering and the sciences is a critical issue for the United States, where innovation in science and technology is a major factor in our economic growth, military capabilities, and living standards (Babco et al, 2005). Talented females who could contribute greatly to our technological growth are deciding very early, consciously or not, that engineering is not for them.
The EngineerGirl! website is designed to inform and inspire middle school and high school girls to consider careers in engineering. The site provides an abundance of information:
- the great variety of engineering careers
- the importance of engineering for our society
- up-to-date career and salary information and job descriptions
- fun general facts about engineers and their achievements
Gallery of Women Engineers
The website has three distinct features. The first is a “Gallery of Women Engineers,” which provides profiles of more than 100 women in the engineering workforce. These profiles portray women in engineering as successful, competent professionals and provide information on how each of them discovered her interest in engineering.
Nisha Agrawal, a chemical engineer, explains in her profile why she decided to become an engineer:
Engineering has such diverse applications, such as everyday tasks, medicine, and advanced research. Today more than ever, engineers contribute to almost every single aspect of our lives—the products and technology we use for work and play, the way we communicate and travel, the foods we eat and the air we breathe. I chose engineering because I wanted to do something that had the potential to affect people’s everyday lives.
The profiles also provide insights into the personalities and interests of these potential role models. Research has shown that students want to be reassured that they can pursue their personal, as well as professional goals and ambitions. The profiles in the “Gallery of Women Engineers” provide three-dimensional views of women engineers. Jenn Dandrea Spadafora, a flight-test engineer for the Boeing Company, describes her interests and hobbies:
I love dogs and do a lot with my foster dog from training to running and hiking. I also really love to cook and bake! I want to own a restaurant later in life. I make bead jewelry like earrings and bracelets. I love to shop, remodel in the house, go to sporting games and movies, and travel.
Ask an Engineer
The second feature, “Ask an Engineer,” is unique to EngineerGirl! This interactive question and answer program allows girls (or any other visitor) to ask any engineer in the gallery questions about engineering professions or education. All of the women profiled participate, and questions are answered directly and by name. For many young women, this is their first opportunity to have a virtual interaction with a role model who can share her insights and experience. The questions and answers are also made available on the website, so other viewers can learn from them.
Annual Essay Contest
The third major feature is an annual essay contest for pre-college students (boys and girls) in grades 3 through 12. Every year, contestants are presented with a different essay topic that highlights the importance of engineering. The winners in each age group receive cash prizes, as well as an opportunity to publish their entries on the EngineerGirl! website. One year, participants were asked to work in teams and design a website that provided information on what girls need to know and do to explore engineering. Another year, they were asked to describe how real-world issues could be addressed using processes and principles from different engineering fields.
The theme of the contest in 2009 was “Engineering Innovation.” Contestants were asked to choose one of three images of unfamiliar objects (Figure 2) and write an essay describing its important features, applying certain principles of engineering (which were provided), and describing the engineer’s role in making the object.
The elementary school (grades 3–5) winner of the 2009 contest was Meg Rominiecki, a fourth-grader from Pennsylvania. Meg identified Image #1 as a junk recycler and explained how it might operate and the engineering principles necessary to create it. She also described her concerns about problems created by space junk:
If I were an engineer, I would need to know about the kinds of things that are in space junk and what they are made of. I would need to know about the materials because I would need to know about what happens to things in outer space without much gravity, in very cold conditions, without oxygen, and without a protective atmosphere. So I would have to investigate how to burn something without oxygen.
In order to build this machine I would need to study mechanical engineering and also the physics of outer space. I would work with a team of engineers because if we all work together we could work faster and have more ideas.
In the middle-school category (grades 6 to 8), the winner was Nora Belkhayat, a 7th grader from Virginia, who used Image #2 to describe a new transportation system nicknamed “the spit-baller.” Nora explains in this excerpt from her essay:
The engineer who created the pod worked for NASA because in 2012 President Obama gave NASA a budget for a magnetics program. NASA used this budget to create the National Transport System called magLev pods. This engineer worked with a team of engineers to design the way the pod would be propelled through the tunnels, and the system of magnets needed in the tunnels to allow the pod to move.Some of the engineering principles that were used would be a stylish, yet simple design that every age would like. Another principle would be to make the spit-baller easy to use. The pod uses today’s simple technology of computerized maps. You enter your destination, and the pod pulls up a map that it can follow automatically through the series of underground tunnels. This feature works like an autopilot. The spit-baller is a high-tech green way of transportation. It is energy-efficient and less expensive over-all than cars and planes, and petroleum-based transportation methods. Citizens are satisfied with the speed of the product, and appreciate the luxuries the magLev pod has to offer. This new idea of a National Transportation System has revolutionized travel.
Qingliu Yang, the first place winner in the high school category (grades 9 to 12), described Image #3 as a new source of en-ergy. In her essay, she noted the importance of having the skills to communicate with non-engineers about the significance of such a discovery:
Engineers have to consider all aspects of a design: the science, the aesthetics, and the practicality. Before the blueprint would go into effect, I would also have to write proposals and convince the city council to make a budget for the Hourglass. Taking the cost into consideration, I had opted for more cost effective materials: plastic substrates, carbon nanotubes (carbon being abundant in the biosphere), simple yet sturdy organic polymers, and an aluminum cathode. While gold cathodes have a higher difference in work function from the anode and would result in a brighter device, I decided that the OLEDs only required 2000 candela to light the pathways of the Hourglass.
The physicist smiled. “Tell me, Miss Yang, do you see any problems with your plan? It seems rather farfetched.”
As a woman engineer, I must have the conviction to follow through with the plan. While I have the passion for science, unless I strongly believe in the success of this combined solar cell—OLED matrix—the city council might not be convinced. I looked towards the glowing OLED 4 feet away, a miniature prototype of the larger scale OLEDs in my plan.
“No, I don’t see any impossible problems.” While there may be some, as an engineer, it is my job to find a way to make it happen.
The more than 500 boys and girls who participated in the 2009 contest reflect the diversity of the EngineerGirl! audience. These students, and many more like them, may someday be part of the engineering workforce.
Responses to the EngineerGirl! Contest
Survey data collected in June 2009 (30 percent response rate, n=173) reveal that viewers generally have very positive reactions to the website. In fact, 95 percent of respondents to a recent online poll said that the website either met or exceeded their expectations. In the same survey, 58 percent of high school girls and 69 percent of middle school girls said they were likely to visit the website again. Fifty-four percent of girls in high school and 69 percent of girls in middle school said they expected to tell others to visit the website as well.
Even more encouraging, 41 percent of female high school respondents who participated in the 2009 essay contest reported that they would be studying engineering in college, and an almost equal number (40 percent) were interested in engineering (Table 3). The challenge for NAE and others in the engineering community is to reach out to the 51 percent of middle school girls who said they might be interested in engineering and provide them with opportunities to learn more about the possibilities and rewards of engineering careers.
Finally the survey asked contestants if participating in the EngineerGirl! essay contest had changed their view of engineering in a positive way. Roughly half of the students answered yes, and an additional third said that participation in the contest had “somewhat” changed their views (Table 4).
The goal of EngineerGirl! is to provide up-to-date resources for students, parents, and teachers and to challenge the notions that engineering is only for a select few and only for males. Because the essay contest is clearly an effective tool for changing young women’s perceptions about engineering careers, we will try to increase participation in the contest through more extensive outreach, better incentives for winners, and more interaction with teachers and schools. In addition, we plan to update the career descriptions to include a wider range of engineering fields. By reaching out to the next generation of professionals, we hope to ultimately increase diversity in the engineering workforce.
Members of the EngineerGirl! Steering Committee, many of whom did not learn about engineering until they were in their mid-twenties, see the website as a first step in providing options for the next generation, a vehicle for reaching out to girls and enlightening them about the exciting career opportunities available to those who pursue a science, technology, engineering, and math-focused educational track. The EngineerGirl! website and other technical programs can provide a window on engineering for a generation of students the world over. Our hope is that young girls will be encouraged and motivated to look into careers in engineering and think, “Yeah, I can do that, and engineering makes the world a better place.”
ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education). 2009. Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges. Washington, D.C.: ASEE.
Babco, M., D. Chubin, and G. May. 2005. Diversifying the engineering workforce. Journal of Engineering Education 94(1): 73–86.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2007. Current Populations Survey. Available online at http://www.bls.gov/cps/.
Burke, R., and M. Mattis, eds. 2007. Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: Upping the Numbers. Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar Publishing.
CPST (Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology). 2008. Professional Women and Minorities: A Total Human Resources Data Compendium, 17th ed. Washington, D.C: Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. Pp. 318, 343.
NAE (National Academy of Engineering). 2005. Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
NSF (National Science Foundation). 2009. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engi-neering: 2009. NSF 09-305. Division of Science Resources Statistics. Available online at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.
Rosser, S.V., and M.Z. Taylor. 2008. Expanding women’s participation in US science. Harvard International Review 30(3): 20-24. Available online at http://www.harvardir.org/symposia/81/.
Weiss, T. 2009. The 10 Hardest Jobs to Fill in America. Forbes, June 3, 2009. Available online at http://www.forbes.com/2009/06/03/hard-jobs-fill-leadership-careers-employment.html