…the future of STEM diversity.

jun 14

8 Future Female Engineers

Every year the Golden Gate Section of the Society of Women Engineers (GGS SWE) provides scholarships to (San Francisco) Bay Area high school seniors. The scholarship supports young women that will attend college in the following academic year pursuing a degree in engineering or computer science. However, first we need to raise money for the scholarship fund.

Most of the annual donations for the scholarship comes from local companies and GGS SWE members. Fortunately, we were able to raise over $18,000 in donations this year, a total that was only beat by last year’s total of $18,500. With this money we were able to present a total of 8 awards. This was my second year as the Scholarship Chair, but the success of the program is largely due to support and help from other members in the section.

Our biggest fundraising event of the year is the Annual Auction. The auction items themselves are not nearly as interesting as the dinner and conversations with other female engineers and allies (either male partners or female non-engineers coming to their engineering friends). GGS SWE has been around since 1950 and has held the auction for most of its 40+ years — we’ve even had the same auctioneer, Greg, helping us for over 25 years!

So what exactly is auctioned off to raise money?? T-shirts. Well, sciencey engineering t-shirts, to be exact. We have livened up the auction items over the past 5 years by including tickets to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) or the Oakland Warriors… sorry, no tickets to meet Steph Curry.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Oracle is one of our biggest long-time supporters of the scholarship fund, and they were our largest corporate donor again this year. We had a few other long-time corporate sponsors, including Chevron in Richmond and Standard Iron & Metal in Oakland. We were also fortunate to make a few new connections with Turner Construction in Oakland and Parker Engineering in San Leandro. Since I will be the Scholarship Chair again next year, hopefully I can continue growing connections between local engineering firms and GGS SWE.

Now that we have a pot of money, who receives the awards?

We had almost 40 applicants — each one of them told amazing stories about how they’ve overcome various obstacles, how they became interested in engineering, and what they hope to do with their engineering degree in the future. Some students have engineers in their family to look up to, while other students will be the first one in their family to attend college.

One thing that stood out among many of the applicants is their experience with the outreach program Girls who Code. Computer Science used to have a high percentage of women (compared to Engineering majors), but the percentage of women seeking and receiving degrees in computer science has been on a steady decline since the 1980’s. To combat this trend, Girls who Code programs started sprouting up everywhere. So naturally, there would be many opportunities to attend a summer program — for example, at Twitter. These programs provide young girls with an opportunity learn how to program with other girls their age. They’re in such demand that spinoffs have been able to form, such as Black Girls Code in Oakland. It’s extremely difficult for organizers of these programs to track where participants end up and determine what, if any, long-lasting impact these programs have on student’s interest in computer science. However, over the past four years that I’ve been involved with reviewing scholarship applications I couldn’t help but notice an increase in applicants that discuss the impact these programs have had on their college decisions.

What is the Engineering analog to Girls Who Code?

Every year engineers hold Engineering Week or EWeek. It is an opportunity for engineers to reach out and share their passion for engineering to the younger generation. It’s also helpful for letting kids know what exactly engineering is — and that it is not just about cars or bridges. EWeek has been held every year since 1951 and its reach and impact has only grown. However, I’m not sure how effective it is for students that don’t already have an engineer in the family that is aware of EWeek activities. Granted there are always parents that are ’in the know’, even if it’s outside of their expertise or interests. I know I was unaware of these programs and activities as a child (my parents included). I was fortunate enough to have an engineering class offered at my high school, which clearly impacted my career decision.

The other noticeable difference between the two outreach systems is time. Girls who Code is often a summer camp style program lasting a few weeks (7 weeks for high school students), which really allows students to get comfortable with programming and dealing with the steep learning curve that comes with learning something new. Now how can I compare that with one week of disconnected activities? It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

A better analog for an engineering program that is similar to Girls Who Code (GWC) might be the Robotics competitions that have been growing throughout the United States. These high school clubs often have a hand full of girls in the team, which is usually separated by folks focused on the software end and others that are focused on the hardware end of the robot. Essentially, if you participate in GWC in middle school, you are more prepared and confident in working on the software side of the Robotics team. Another important shift that helped increase interest from girls and young women into the robotics competitions was the change in mission for the competitions. Some of you may remember a TV show called Robot Wars, where contestants would create robots that would fight each other. It was action packed without any blood, death, and trauma of a real war, but not necessarily a mission that attracted a lot of female participants. Now robotics competitions have missions or challenges with obstacles (e.g., retrieve food from a table and make it safely back to a home base) — equally, if not more, challenging than previous missions (FIRST Robotics Competiion).

This year’s scholarship recipients

So what will the future female engineer do? Our scholarship recipients will be majoring in Computer Science, Environmental Science & Engineering, and Bioengineering/Biomedical Engineering. These young women came from San Francisco, Richmond, Alameda, Novato, and Ross, CA. Many of them will stay in California for college attending colleges such as UC Berkeley, Harvey Mudd, UC Santa Barbra and Santa Clara. After living in California for only four years, I can’t blame them for wanting to stay nearby. However, there are 3 adventurous recipients have decided to move to the East Coast to attend college at Princeton (2 receipients) and Johns Hopkins.

The interest in computer science is a great sign that there may be a reversal in the downward trend. The interest in Environmental Science and Bioengineering is not a huge surprise, as women tend to gravitate to engineering fields that have a ’clear positive societal impact’. Fields like Bioengineering and Environmental Engineering have a much larger percentage of female students than some of the other older engineering fields like Mechanical Engineering. Interestingly enough, I am a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering (student body ~18% women), but my research is focused on the mechanical behavior of tissues in the body (biomechanics) — so it’s not all about cars and planes in Mechanical Engineering! Perhaps I need to do a better job of getting that little unknown secret out to the public…

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