Dec. 14, 2004
Introductory engineering class hits on formula to attract women
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Educators have fretted for years over ways to attract more women to science and math majors, and a new section of a University of Michigan course may have hit on a simple solution: add a service component to the technical coursework.
This term, one popular section of "Introduction to Engineering," boasts 35 percent women—much higher than the 27 percent ratio of undergraduate women to men in the College of Engineering overall—and suggests that course designers Lorelle Meadows and Pauline Khan have discovered a successful formula to attract and retain females and minorities in the traditionally white male-dominated field.
In the course, students learn the fundamentals of engineering by designing, building and donating greenhouses to schools in disadvantaged communities wanting to grow their own food.
Another course, "Engineering for Community," which was offered for the first time last winter, boasted even better results, with 39 percent women in the class. The numbers are split evenly between graduate and undergraduate students, said course instructor Bill Schultz, professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics and naval architecture and marine engineering.
Service projects in the elective course include working with small businesses in India to make soap from local oils; and helping to bring wiring or wireless access to local residential neighborhoods in Detroit.
"One of the reasons why we started this course was to help with retention of underrepresented minorities and women," said Schultz, who expects similar high numbers when the course is offered again winter term.
"There is actually evidence that women and students of color prefer to be in fields where they perceive that they are helping people and society," said Cinda-Sue Davis, director of the women in science and engineering program, WISE.
"This class and the concepts that it is teaching me have reaffirmed my desire to become an engineer," said student Claire Carpenter, who is taking Meadow's and Khan's class. "I hope to use the engineering knowledge that I gain at U-M to make a positive contribution to society."
The project evolved because Meadows and Khan wanted to engage students in an engineering project that not only taught them the basics of engineering design, teamwork and communication, but produced something tangible and needed for a less-privileged client, Meadows said.
"As I was exploring the use of a service-learning project and talking to interested people throughout the college, I learned that this type of project is usually very appealing to women and other under-represented minorities in engineering, and may help them to develop a professional identity in engineering that aligns with their innate desires to help people," said Meadows, assistant research scientist and lecturer in undergraduate education. "Engineering is becoming more of a social science than it ever was in the past. The problems that engineers are having to solve are much more global."
Students divide into teams of four to six, and each team submits a design. The final design will include one design element from each project. The teams will build and dismantle the greenhouses in the gallery at the Duderstadt Center, then deliver them to the Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Growing Hope.
The greenhouse must be constructed for less than $1,500, and should measure roughly 10 by 16 feet, Meadows said.
The class is required for freshmen in engineering who haven't chosen a department yet, Meadows said. The students pick from one of 10 sections based on the course description.
Contact: Laura Bailey