MU Engineering launches a Women in Engineering Center
Alumna invests in women students’ success
Author and naturalist Diane Ackerman is quoted as saying, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”
That attitude of reaching out and embracing one’s full potential is one the College of Engineering would like to instill in every student who passes through its doors. But the sentiment rings especially true in the case of women students, who statistically have lower rates of enrollment as well as lower retention rates in both college and the workplace, even though academically, there often is no difference between men and women students.
Time and time again, women students in good academic standing leave engineering and migrate to other math and science fields.
Research findings on the source of these trends range from the lack of effort on the part of K-12 education programs to rigorously engage girls in a science and engineering curriculum to gender bias at all levels.
To address these issues, the MU College of Engineering launched a Women in Engineering (WIE) Center early this year thanks to a generous gift on the part of an MU engineering alumna with an interest in supporting the success of women students. An open house was held in February to launch the effort, and the program hit the ground running.
“We are pleased to be able to launch this effort in the MU College of Engineering and grateful to the anonymous donor who made it possible,” said engineering Interim Dean Robert Schwartz. “It is important for engineering colleges and the engineering profession overall to reach out to women. Engineering is an occupation that relies on teamwork. Diverse perspectives and varied ideas encourage more dynamic and innovative solutions. Supporting women in engineering benefits all of us.”
Professor Kate Trauth, a civil and environmental engineer, serves as center director. She has served as the faculty adviser to the college’s student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers since 2006 and was tapped to identify areas of need to be addressed by the WIE Center and what some of its responses might look like.
With input from faculty and staff who work closely with the college’s women students, Trauth put together a basic plan and wrote vision and mission statements for the center.
“We want to provide all of our students with the tools they need to be successful and broaden how we think about engineering,” Trauth said of the effort. “I’d like us to be the kind of college where everyone is welcomed and given the opportunity to participate.”
Jayme Gardner joined Mizzou Engineering as the center’s program coordinator in the fall of 2014. Gardner is a graduate of MU’s School of Journalism and in May, earned a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy analysis from the university.
“Women and gender studies has been a passion of mine since I started [at Mizzou],” said Gardner, who will be responsible for implementing strategies to recruit, retain and build a community of women within the college.
“Among the Midwest land grant universities, 11 to 25 percent of engineering students are women. We are at 17 percent,” said Gardner who dove into her job as program coordinator by gathering information on what other schools in the SEC and peer institutions were doing to address the issues of success for women in engineering education.
Working together, Gardner and Trauth wrote a strategic plan for the center. Gardner began immediately to reach out to engineering students, faculty and staff as well as others on campus to identify opportunities to address the issues of inclusion and satisfaction on the part of women students
Creating an awareness of the center’s existence and communicating its goals and its role as a resource to students was the first order of business. The WIE Center invited women students to a casual pizza dinner in Gillett Residence Hall where some of the engineering’s 15 freshmen interest groups (FIGs) are located. FIGs are groups of like-minded students living in close proximity and attending at least three classes together — support groups built into a living situation.
Trauth spoke with department chairs and attended departmental meetings to introduce the center’s goals and garner faculty support.
The WIE Center is working closely with engineering’s existing support organizations for women students: SWE, the college’s Women Mentoring Women Program, also known by its engineering name, (MW)2, and MU’s Beta Zeta chapter of the international engineering sorority Alpha Omega Epsilon (AOE).
Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering Heather Hunt has served as the faculty adviser for (MW)2, and though she will still be involved in the effort by upperclasswomen to serve as role models and mentors to younger students, she will be turning over a lot of the administrative duties to Gardner.
(MW)2 info sessions held earlier in the semester netted 22 new mentors. Gardner is hoping that each participant will be willing to work with two younger women students.
“I think there are so many incredibly impassioned and talented people out there who want to be engineers, but they go into other STEM fields. I want to stop that brain drain,” said Hunt. “It’s about giving opportunities to people who are talented, capable and who can do amazing things with those opportunities.”
“AOE is a professional and social sorority that understands the needs of female engineers. Engineering is a demanding degree as well as a demanding profession,” said Bioengineering Professor Sheila Grant, faculty adviser for the sorority. “Having an AOE chapter on the MU campus greatly expands our support system for our female engineers.”
The sorority sponsors professional and philanthropic activities for its members as well as social events fostering a sense of belonging and support among its members.
Gardner has worked to form a student inclusivity board and on a recent Saturday, hosted diversity training for them. Members of the board, inspired by another group’s call to action, are working to issue their own call to action.
“I’m so excited for them,” said Gardner. “They’ve made this list of things they’d like administration to do.”
As the semester drew to a close, the WIE Center co-hosted a diversity banquet in conjunction with SWE, the Society of Hispanic Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.
The center also sponsored its inaugural end-of-year women in engineering event, attended by women students, faculty and alumnae. Mary Lamme, a 1989 civil engineering graduate who has had a remarkable career with the Illinois Department of Transportation — and now works in the private sector as a consultant — was the evening’s speaker. Based on her own experiences, Lamme urged students in attendance to remain flexible and keep open minds and options. She said she never intended to remain with the IDOT for so many years, but couldn’t say no to the opportunities the job presented her.
Moving forward, Gardner said she would like to make better connections with those who counsel students and sponsor brown bags for advisers and faculty. She and Trauth plan to work to form alumni and faculty advisory boards.
A climate survey is planned for November and working with advisory boards and results of the survey, the center will begin tailoring programs for women students.
“We’re thinking about clubs, teams, and research opportunities that are more inclusive with ‘changing the world’ themes. We want to bring people together and make important connections for women students,” said Trauth. “We’re into the core, but we’ll be expanding out.
“I’m grateful to Dean Schwartz for the resources put forward that allowed for something like this to take shape that will be formative for the college,” Trauth added.
“We’d like the women who come to Mizzou to enjoy the experience and be engaged and then be good stewards of a program that nurtured them,” said Gardner.