Encouraging women to become engineers

Tuesday , November 28, 2017 - 4:00 AM

DAVID FERRO, special to the Standard-Examiner

Last week the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University hosted the ninth annual Parent/Daughter Engineering Night. It is an opportunity for parents and daughters to hear from students, professors and leaders in engineering while engaging in collaborative hands-on activities.

The CookieNauts, an all-girls tech challenge team, made an appearance at the event. They talked about how they love building things, then joined the rest of the girls building a pneumatic hand. Parent/daughter teams built more than 40 versions of the hand from straws, string, and odds and ends.

The response to the evening was great. However, while we’ve made headway, we have a long way to go to encourage more women to consider careers in technology.

Parent Dan Richardson, who works at Hill Air Force Base, sent a note of thanks to all the volunteers. It read, “As a parent, I appreciate events like these, but as an engineering manager in desperate need of more engineers/scientists, I appreciate it even more. In Utah, there is such a huge gap between our need for engineers/scientists and the current supply in our universities! I believe that encouraging more women/girls to be involved with STEM is the most effective way to close that gap.”

To address the issue, in 2005, WSU’s computer science faculty wrote its own introductory textbook that gave a broad overview of the field. The faculty also emphasized support for students new to computing. The changes worked. Today, women make up 17 percent of the computer science school — a 10 percent increase since 2005. In addition, the department has seen more than a 100 percent increase in enrollment.

WSU electrical engineering assistant professor Dr. Dhanya Nair wishes there had bee events like Parent/Daughter when she was growing up in her native India. However, she also noted that women made up more than a third of her engineering class in in college, compared to the 5 percent she finds in her American classes. “We didn’t think it was a big deal,” Nair said. “No one said we shouldn’t do it.”

Dr. Nair points to a serious issue — a bias against women in engineering. For example, a male software engineer from Google recently wrote a column claiming some biological reasons — everything from women having a stronger interest in people over things to higher levels of neuroticism — for the lack of hiring of women at the software company.

Generalized differences between genders might exist, yet built-in bias creates a hostile environment for women, which further discourages them and helps perpetuate gender myths.

Resilient and capable American women have already busted those myths. As proof, all you need to do is go Christmas shopping, where you can find Lego’s Women of NASA set honoring Nancy Grace Roman, Margaret Hamilton, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison. And a conference on computing is named for Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, who wrote one of the first programming languages.

When women (or men) bring different skills to a problem, it adds value. A study by MIT professor Sherry Turkle showed that children, whatever their gender, can utilize different skills — logic, math, language or social understanding — to program computers and arrive at similarly successful results.

One of the speakers last week noted that women are more than half the population, but only represent a fifth of those people designing the objects around us. She said, “The marketplace seeks our voices.” With all the potential jobs available in technology, plenty of room exists for American men and women.

WSU manages many outreach activities for students in grades K through 12. We think a couple of nights focused on girls is a good thing for all of us.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: @DavidFerro9.

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