Public Affairs

Engineering Puts Women on Solid Ground

May 25, 2011
By Elizabeth Chapin

More than 27,000 women are pursuing undergraduate engineering degrees at the California State University. Despite such a seemingly large number, the percentage of women engineers in the classroom and in the profession remains low. The CSU has a number of outreach programs aimed at tackling those statistics, and its engineering students and graduates are preaching what they practice –so young women can see the opportunities that come with an engineering degree.

If Beena Ajmera had decided not to pursue engineering, the Cal State Fullerton civil engineering student’s innovative research would not have materialized. Fortunately, she persisted - because her research has the potential to save lives, property and millions of dollars.

Ajmera’s research focuses on how long water-saturated slopes of various soil types could hold up without sliding under the weight of large buildings or housing developments. In her project, which is funded by a National Science Foundation grant, Ajmera creates soil mixtures and tests their strength and suitability for building.

“The recent earthquakes in Japan triggered massive landslides and at the same time served as a reminder of the possibility that such a disaster in California is very real,” Ajmera said. “It would greatly reduce damages if we can verify the strength of the soil before building in areas susceptible to landslides."Cal State Fullerton civil engineering student Beena Ajmera (center) attending a scientific research conference.

In California, there’s a need for research like Ajmera’s, which is commonly conducted by civil and environmental engineers.

In fact, the nation is facing a growing need for engineers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2018, the engineering workforce will grow by 11 percent, or 178,300.

Cal State Fullerton civil engineering student Beena Ajmera (center) attending a scientific research conference.

In order to produce enough engineers to meet that projected growth rate, the field needs to become more diverse. This means the nation must produce more female engineers, as women are the largest underrepresented group in the field.

The National Science Foundation reports that while women’s degree participation is low throughout the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, it is the lowest in engineering. According to the NSF, women account for roughly 20 percent of the nation’s college engineering majors and only about 10 percent of those practicing the profession.

Many girls do not consider engineering as a career option, which simply leads to very few women engineers. Researchers suggest there are a number of reasons why, including a lack of female role models and negative stereotypes about girls’ math abilities that can lower aspirations for science and engineering careers over time.

To get girls thinking about engineering, the CSU is partnering with federal and local programs as it expands its reach to California’s K-12 classrooms. Through these outreach programs, campuses are creating environments that include female role models and hands-on learning activities – so students can experience what “engineering” really means.

For example, the Cal State Long Beach College of Engineering hosts Women Engineers @ the Beach every semester, which draws nearly 400 female students from area middle schools, high schools, and community colleges. In another example, Sacramento State will host the expanding your horizons conference, which is a one day conference for 6th – 8th grade girls that’s intended to encourage them to explore careers in STEM.

The Lyles College of Engineering at Fresno State also hosts a summer camp for young women in engineering that in addition to engineering includes recreational and leadership activities that are designed to gain confidence and experience in a supportive girls-only environment.

LaTesha Hagler, student outreach coordinator for the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Cal State Northridge, says that CSUN has a variety of programs to spark engineering interest. But the ACCESS program, aimed at underrepresented minority groups in engineering, takes outreach to another level.

ACCESS lets juniors and seniors at area high schools receive college credit in a class that is integrated with CSUN’s engineering department. Preparing them for necessary curriculum and providing them with professional role models and student mentors, the program demonstrates the possibilities in engineering.

“The program inspires and enlightens these young people to pursue engineering, which is really special because many may not have the opportunities to be introduced to this,” Hagler said. “The fact that they get to come to campus and work on projects with our faculty makes a huge difference.”

To date, the ACCESS program has served more than 380 students at 15 local high schools. Of those, CSUN attracted 78 applicants and 19 first-time freshman who are currently pursuing bachelor’s degrees. Over half of them are young women.

Student organizations are also reaching out. The Society of Women in Engineering has student chapters at a number of CSU campuses. SWE members often visit grade and high school classes where they host hands-on workshops and answer questions about what engineering is like in college and what classes you need to take to get there.

The young women in Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s SWE chapter take part in a program called High School Shadow, which pairs high school students with Cal Poly engineering students. They spend the day on campus, “shadowing” an engineering student as she goes through a typical day on campus. Through this program, girls can learn first-hand about engineering and college life.

These student clubs not only introduce girls to engineering, but also provide college students with a sense of community, reported to be a major factor in college persistence among women engineers.

Women in Engineering also reports that the encouragement of faculty mentors also contributes to increased self-confidence and college persistence.

Beena Ajmera, who plans on continuing her research in graduate school at CSUF, says her mentor, Professor Beenod TIwari, was critical to her success.

“Dr. Tiwari’s confidence in me boosted my own confidence so much. He’s been so important to my growth as an engineer,” Ajmera said. “There was never a moment I questioned my choice to pursue this field.”

But Ajmerea knows that when young women don’t consider engineering, they can miss out on so many opportunities. Through her service in student organizations, she’s able to speak to young women and shed some light on engineering, which she describes as “everything you can see.”

She says that the most influential reason for girls to consider it as a career is right before their eyes.

“The young women that I talk to want to have a positive impact on people. If we can get across that engineering creates the technology that is going to help make people’s lives better, that alone is a very powerful way to reach them.”