February 6, 2012
Professor's Project Sparks Girls' Interest in Engineering
Over the past 50 years, women have made significant inroads into historically male-dominated fields such as business, law, and medicine. In science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), however, women’s progress has been slower, especially in engineering, computer science, and physics.
Why are so few women becoming scientists and engineers?
Jill Bystydzienski, professor and chair, Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, has been looking into obstacles to advancement of girls and women in science, technology, and engineering fields for several years now. She has been particularly interested in the lives of three young women‑all graduates of the same high school and currently in their junior year at Ohio State.
“Many girls in high school are never introduced to engineering or encouraged to consider engineering as a possible career,” said Bystydzienski, co-author of the book, Removing Barriers: Women in Academic Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. “Even if they become interested in engineering, there is strong evidence that many academic departments are resistant to addressing the concerns that keep young women from entering careers in these fields.”
Bystydzienski first met Elizabeth Colby, Zoe Tseng, and Laura VanVliet in 2006/07 when they were sophomores at Dublin Coffman High School in Dublin, Ohio. Colby, Tseng, and VanVliet were part of a group of 20 girls at Dublin Coffman brought together by Bystydzienski as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) program designed to spark and sustain girls’ interest in engineering. All three decided to major in engineering at Ohio State after they completed high school.
In 2006, Bystydzienski and colleagues from Iowa State University, Monica Bruning, and the University of Colorado, Margaret Eisenhart, were awarded an NSF Female Recruits Explore Engineering (FREE) grant to conducta multi-year outreach and engagement project to explore how 132 young women in ten Ohio, Iowa, and Colorado high schools came to know and learn about engineering and to support young women to think seriously about engineering as a career.
“We didn’t know anything about engineering before we went to our first meeting with professor Bystydzienski,” said VanVliet. Colby was thinking about a career in medicine and Tseng’s future was in the undecided mode.
Beginning in early 2007 through the end of 2008, Bystydzienski and her research assistant, Jennifer Lang, got together with the girls to explore engineering, meet practicing engineers, visit engineering fairs and firms, discuss the pros and cons of engineering, and conduct hands-on experiments, all in an effort to increase their knowledge of and interest in engineering. All of the activities were conducted after school and on a voluntary basis.
“Going on field trips to engineering firms and having the opportunity to spend time with female engineers helped to expand the girls’ ideas of what engineering was about,” said Bystydzienski. “When you’re exposed to new possibilities, you tend to take a second look.”
According to VanVliet, while touring campus engineering departments and talking with women engineers she discovered something about the field that she didn’t expect: “There’s a lot of creativity in engineering.”
Before graduation, Colby, Tseng, and VanVliet completed their own small-scale engineering projects under the guidance of engineers/mentors. One of their projects was the design of a playground for disabled and able-bodied children to encourage children of varying abilities to play together.
“I think it’s safe to say that by the time the girls actually entered Ohio State in 2009 they came armed with an extraordinary amount of information about engineering and much more confidence in their abilities to take their place in the field,” said Bystydzienski.
Bystydzienski continues to follow the paths of Colby, Tseng, and VanVliet who are now in their third year at Ohio State. Colby is majoring in chemical engineering; Tseng is a double major in geography and Chinese; and VanVliet is a chemical engineering major. They communicate by posting updates and reflections on a Facebook group site and meet several times a year to talk about coursework and careers.
In 2006, Colby, Tseng, and VanVliet hadn’t considered engineering as a college or career choice. They were part of the “untapped pool” of young women academically prepared to pursue engineering but not already planning to do so.
What made the difference?
“If I hadn’t got involved with FREE while I was at Dublin Coffman, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Tseng. “I think we all can agree on that.”
Bystydzienski continues to follow the college trajectories of fifteen of the original twenty Ohio participants. Six of the fifteen are majoring in engineering. Her grant will end in 2013.