Interaction with Faculty, Other Mentors Could Warm Up “Chilly” Engineering Classes for Women and Minorities

National innovation and competitiveness depends on a steady supply of engineers, but women and minorities remain underrepresented in undergraduate engineering classrooms. A new study of undergraduate engineering students in the United States shows gender and ethnicity differences in how comfortable students feel in engineering classrooms and suggests strategies that may improve the dearth of women and minorities in engineering.

The results show that women and minorities feel less comfortable in engineering classrooms than their white male peers. “Women feel uncomfortable asking questions in class and minorities feel like they are not taken seriously,” said Elizabeth Litzler, project manager of the survey and director for research at the Center for Workforce Development at the University of Washington. “Couple those feelings of isolation with a rigorous and often dry engineering curriculum, and it makes sense that attrition rates would be high for first-year engineering students,” she said.

Elizabeth Litzler

Elizabeth Litzler

Litzler offered some preliminary analysis of the survey results during a 17 March presentation at a workshop for participants in the Project to Assess Climate in Engineering (PACE), hosted by AAAS. About 20 deans and administrators from engineering schools attended the 17-18 March PACE meeting at AAAS. Students from their schools had participated in the PACE survey, and the educators had received the survey results along with individualized recommendations on how to reduce attrition of women and minorities at their schools.

PACE meeting attendees also received customized suggestions on how to create a better learning environment for women and minorities at each engineering school that participated in the survey. The recommendations included ways to help students see the exciting opportunities in engineering, such as more contact with alumni, more positive reinforcement from faculty, more student-faculty interaction, more student involvement in professional societies and more participation in laboratory research.

The project is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a New York City-based non-profit organization focusing on science, technology and economic issues.

About 20% of undergraduate engineering students drop out or switch to different majors after their first year, according to an Engineering Workforce Commission study tracing engineering students in the 2005 to 2006 school year. Other reports show that attrition is greater in women than men, even though women can have better grades in engineering classes.

What is so unpalatable for women and minorities pursuing undergraduate engineering degrees? That’s what the PACE project is trying to figure out. How do gender and ethnicity change how students perceive their undergraduate engineering experience?

“We don’t have a comprehensive picture” of attrition in undergraduate engineering, said Ted Greenwood, a program director at the Sloan Foundation. Universities typically don’t collect attrition data by discipline, he said, so it’s hard to know the student migration patterns from department to department. “What we do know is that attrition is generally higher in women and minority undergraduate engineering majors,” Greenwood said. “A chilly or hostile climate oftentimes is the reason for attrition for women and minorities.”

In the fall of 2006, Litzler and her colleagues at the University of Washington’s Center for Workforce Development received a five-year grant to study how gender and ethnicity contribute to students’ perceptions of their experiences in undergraduate classes. Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources, and Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity[link: http://php.aaas.org/programs/centers/capacity/], worked with the research team and committee to create a 15-minute online survey for undergraduate engineering students.

The survey was emailed to undergraduate engineering students in 22 colleges across the United States, tapping their thoughts on professors and teaching assistants, interactions with other students, extracurricular activities, perceptions of engineering careers, and asking about their confidence in completing an engineering degree. About 10,550 undergraduate engineering students responded, out of over 38,000 who were invited. In-person interviews further fleshed out student perceptions of their learning environment.

Litzler presented preliminary analyses of the survey at the 17-18 March PACE meeting at AAAS. Litzler, who’s using the PACE data as part of her sociology dissertation at the University of Washington, said that her analyses show that African Americans and Hispanic Americans—men and women—do not feel like they are taken as seriously by their peers compared to white students. Litzler’s preliminary findings also suggest that white women feel more of a sense of community in engineering than did their African American and Hispanic American female peers.

While white women felt less comfortable asking questions in class, and they felt like their peers took them seriously and helped them succeed, resulting in a strong sense of community in engineering. However, women felt less confidence than men in their ability to succeed in engineering classes. They also showed an increased likelihood of dropping out of the engineering program or switching to a different major.

While the survey shows that white women are making some strides in a field that has been called chilly toward women, the same is not true for African American and Hispanic American women. “These findings beg the question of what is happening to the community for under-represented minorities, especially women under-represented minorities,” Litzler said.

In her report, Litzler recommends that engineering programs educate students about bias and how to work in racially and ethnically diverse settings. Faculty play an important role too. “Something as simple as positive comments from professors to students can have a big impact on students’ feelings that they fit in the engineering field,” Litzler said.

At the meeting, some of the participants remarked that women often think that they are not doing well in engineering programs even when they are getting better grades and participating in more professional activities than their male peers.

Shirley Malcolm

Shirley Malcolm

“A lot of times women feel like imposters—you have to affirm that they are good,” said Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS’s Education and Human Resources programs.

Maybe the engineering field has a “branding problem,” Malcom suggested. “Women do not perceive engineering as a field where they can make the world better,” she said. Some areas of engineering—such as bio-engineering—are more women-friendly than others, Malcom added.

During small group discussions at the PACE meeting, participants shared ways they were making core engineering classes more engaging for first-year students, particularly women and minorities. “Give me one week that’s not boring!” one attendee exclaimed, summing up a view held by many others that dry curriculum with out-dated and obscure examples can dissuade students.

Susan Metz (left), co-principal investigator on the PACE survey, talked with colleagues about the results.

Susan Metz (left), co-principal investigator on the PACE survey, talked with colleagues about the results.

Susan Metz, co-principal investigator on the survey, described how she and her PACE colleagues are putting together a list of ideas and examples that professors can use in classes to illustrate fundamental engineering concepts. Population control, climate, iPods, sporting equipment and even a drinking cup are engineering-related concepts and items that students are familiar with and that can be blended into engineering classes.

“We’re not changing courses; we don’t want to deal with the politics of that,” said Metz, senior advisor for the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Instead, she said, they’re enhancing existing curricula. Metz is also a principal investigator on a similar project funded by the National Science Foundation, called ENGAGE[link: www.engageengineering.org]. The ENGAGE project takes PACE recommendations and puts them into practice in engineering classrooms.

Metz, Litzler and Suzanne Brainard—the principal investigator on the PACE project—shared results of the survey with deans and administrators who attended the PACE meeting at AAAS.

“We know from the report that we have issues: Students feel that they are unfairly treated due to gender or race,” said Mary Juhas, senior assistant dean at the Ohio State University. She said that faculty members at Ohio State were “surprised” by the findings, and that the differential treatment reflected in the survey is not done “consciously or maliciously.”

PACE meeting attendees described some of the ways they’re putting the recommendations into practice. Some attendees said that they were inviting more alums and other engineers in industry to give guest lectures during classes as a way to showcase what real-life engineers do. Greater student participation in professional engineering societies was another approach to showing undergraduates the potential of an engineering degree.

Students need to know the advantages of having an engineering degree, otherwise they won’t want to deal with the challenges of obtaining the degree, Metz said.

Most PACE meeting attendees described ways that they are improving mentoring, both from peers and from faculty members. “We lose students if they aren’t engaged with faculty,” said Paige Smith, from the University of Maryland, College Park. Smith and her colleagues are considering different ways in which they can recognize engineering faculty who are particularly approachable.

Getting undergraduate engineering students to participate in faculty research projects is also high on the list for PACE participants.

“There’s nothing worse to me than hearing from a dean how women and minorities don’t apply” to positions in faculty members’ research labs, Juhas said. She said that faculty members have to seek out women and minorities and encourage them to apply to research positions. “You have to integrate diversity into your daily business,” she said. If faculty members think of a great student in their classes who’s a minority, they should invite them to do research, Juhas added.

Findings from the report will be published in the conference proceedings for the 2010 meeting of the American Society of Engineering Education, 20-23 June in Louisville, Kentucky. With 18 months left of the Sloan Foundation grant, the PACE research team will continue to analyze the survey data to see how student experiences relate to risk of attrition.

Brainard, the PACE principle investigator, is also executive director of the Center for Workforce Development and a professor in women studies and in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington. She said that the PACE survey team plans to seek funding to do a follow-up survey in about four years to reassess student perceptions’ of engineering programs and to see if there have been changes to programs or policies.

“Careers in engineering offer so many exciting opportunities, from the traditional electrical and civil engineering projects to the emerging possibilities in biomedical engineering,” said Brainard, noting that engineering is increasingly collaborative with fields such as chemistry, mathematics, and physics.

“Now that there’s such a diversity of engineering careers,” she added, “we want to help create a climate in engineering schools that appeals to a diverse student body.”

Learn more about the Project to Assess Climate in Engineering (PACE).