Why do female students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields need mentors? “While there has been a more concentrated effort by many to spread the word regarding the lack of women in STEM, and many programs and events have been created to address the issue, the stark reality is that there is still a continued lack of female representation in these fields,” responds Susan Arnold-Christian, assistant director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. “I think all you have to do is ask a female engineering or physics student how many female peers they have in their major courses. There are many STEM majors that females still do not pursue, and in order for us as a country to have a more competitive edge in the world market, we need females at the table when ideas and solutions are being created. To leave females out of the process will only continue to hurt us in this global economy.”
Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, agrees. “ It’s certainly true that in fields like chemistry and biology, females make up more than 50% of the undergraduate majors. In engineering and computer science, however, females are [less than] 20% of the majors. Given the huge demand for computer science majors and for some areas of engineering, this is a major problem,” she contends.
Arnold-Christian and Klawe are leading programs that provide support and mentors to female STEM students. At Virginia Tech, the Hypatia Women in Engineering Learning Community brings together first-year and first-time female engineering students in a residential environment. “Hypatia, like many female engineering living learning communities, provides students with an instant support network,” says Arnold-Christian. “Many of our students spend a large amount of time with their male peers in class, labs, and team projects. When Hypatians ‘go home,’ they can meet and connect with the other females in their major. They do homework together and create social connections that [can] last for years.”
Hypatia participants commit to the program for a full academic year. As a requirement, they take a fall-semester seminar course covering topics like professional development, academic success strategies, diversity, personal development, and critical issues surrounding women’s roles in predominately male fields. To further unify the community, students are also block-scheduled together in their first-semester classes.
What makes Hypatia unique “is that it is very student-driven,” Arnold-Christian maintains. “This is not just a place for freshmen to live; we have a large team of upper-class leaders who mentor the first-year students and provide academic, professional, and social support.”
The program also strives to reach young women from underrepresented groups. Virginia Tech’s CEED “hosts a summer program for high school girls and a middle school program that are both ‘feeder’ programs to Hypatia. These programs are marketed to minority/underserved students. By creating this early connection with students, it is our hope and intent that they would choose to attend Virginia Tech and apply for the Hypatia program,” Arnold-Christian explains.
Hypatia has achieved substantial success, she points out. “We have been tracking Hypatia students for about 10 years now, and what we see with the data is that we graduate around 82% of Hypatia participants with engineering degrees. The other students not participating in the program have about a 64% graduation rate. We have also seen a large growth in the numbers of students who apply to continue in the program in leadership roles after their first year. This current academic year, we have representation from sophomores, juniors, and seniors in leadership roles,” she explains.
Klawe is overseeing a six-week pilot program that began on October 1 called WitsOn (Women in Technology Sharing Online). WitsOn is sponsored by Harvey Mudd College and the social learning platform Piazza (founded by Pooja Sankar, who was one of only three women in her computer science class at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi). The program connects female undergraduates pursuing STEM degrees with female mentors from industry and academia. The roster of mentors includes such notables as Julie Larson-Green, corporate vice president of program management for Windows at Microsoft; Julie Shimer, retired chief executive officer and president of medical equipment manufacturer Welch Allyn; and Klawe, a renowned computer scientist and scholar who is the first woman president of Harvey Mudd College since its founding in 1955.
“To my knowledge, WitsOn is the first major online mentoring initiative aimed at female undergraduates in science and engineering,” she asserts. “We have 500 female scientists and engineers at all stages in their careers answering questions from students…about how to steer their careers. [So far,] I’m amazed at the depth and quality of the discussions that are happening.”
While WitsOn is targeted to all female STEM undergraduates, Klawe says she is “confident that females from minority communities will find much of value. With more than 500 mentors, we have participants from a wide range of underrepresented groups who can talk about their experiences in science and engineering.”
After the six-week pilot, Klawe and the mentor team hope students will see the value of mentorship and seek their own mentors offline.
What Teachers Can Do
When asked how teachers can encourage young women to pursue STEM careers, Arnold-Christian responds, “[W]e as a society and educators have to do a better job of communicating how STEM fields help make the world a better place…We have done a great job of showing how efficient best practices in science and engineering can make profits and earn great incomes. However, hearing and seeing examples of how engineering is a helping profession is vital. We have seen a huge increase in female representation in the legal and medical fields because there is an easy link to see how that work impacts people’s lives.”
To show young women the value of engineering, she cites as a resource “the ‘Grand Challenges’ set forth by the National Academies of Engineering. These issues of making solar energy economical, providing access to clean drinking water, and engineering better medicines are examples that students can resonate with. By getting teachers to help us communicate these messages with young women, it can help us open the door to a field they may not be considering.”
Klawe contends that “the most important advice [for teachers] is to provide encouragement. So many young women doubt their ability to succeed in science and engineering, and yet will succeed with support from their instructors. Over and over again, I have seen the impact of encouragement in helping young women reach the highest levels of success.”