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Cougars & Mustangs 

Cougars & Mustangs: Cal Poly professors take on the challenge of increasing female representation among engineers

Jane Lehr, associate professor of ethnic studies and women’s and gender studies; Helene Finger, Women’s Engineering Program director; and Beverley Kwang, ethnic studies alumna; have been recognized by the American Society of Engineering Education for their research into increasing the number of college women who enroll in engineering disciplines. Their research has been collected in a paper titled “When, Why, How, Who—Lessons from First-Year Female Engineering Students at Cal Poly for Efforts to Increase Recruitment,” which won the Best Zone Paper from the national organization.

The concern of this team and its research was a startlingly large gap in the proportion of males to females who participate in engineering. Social structures of both society and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields) education and professions play a large part, though not the only part. By asking women already enrolled in engineering at Cal Poly from their first year what inspired them to pursue this discipline, when they decided this, what factors played a part in educational decision-making, who they are and how their identities compare with dominant images of what it means to be an engineer, the team gathered some very important information.

For one thing, the team realized that a very large percentage of the women didn’t make their personal decision to major in engineering until their sophomore, junior, or senior years in high school, and now intends to focus more recruitment efforts at these later times in a student’s education, and allow more effort to recruit students who do not identify as math/science/technology-focused (personal sidenote to that: if I recall, “Undeclared” is one of the most highly-enrolled of all college majors).

Another significant factor in student participation in engineering, and any decisions made about education, are the parents of the student. If the student’s parents are engineers or have connections to schools/other institutions related to engineering, they are among a higher percentage rate of those enrolled.

The program will attempt to further branch out to those students who do not already have this sort of connection, though it is unclear whether the issue there deals primarily with recruitment or relative underperformance of students without such networking to help break through the highly-selective admissions process at Cal Poly. The research gathered so far has already helped impact enrollment; the incoming freshman class has the highest percentage of female engineering students in the history of the program! More information can be read in the abstract of the report at Congratulations to those who have worked so hard on this project.

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