Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Our Place

Nearly half of Dartmouth engineering majors are women. Here's why.

By Anna Fiorentino
Photograph by John Sherman

Kelsey Kittelsen ’17 may have been the only girl in her high school class to compete in an egg drop contest, and she’s likely to enter an engineering workforce that skews heavily toward men. But as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, she’s not facing a boys’ club when it comes to engineering.

That’s because for the first time in the history of Thayer School, the number of undergraduate women majoring in engineering is nearing parity with men. Women compose 42 percent of seniors (class of 2015) and 48 percent of juniors (class of 2016) majoring in engineering.

The numbers represent a significant high for Thayer. For the past decade, women have composed an average of 31 percent of engineering majors earning the Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) degree and 27 percent of students earning the Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) degree.

The new numbers also represent a national milestone. For the past ten years, just 19 percent of American students graduating with an undergraduate engineering degree have been women.

Clearly, Thayer School is doing something right to attract so many women undergraduates to engineering—and keep them there.

Our Place Zhao Brouckman Kanoff
From left: Valerie Zhao ’15, Allison Brouckman ’15, and Christine Kanoff ’15.

“I chose Thayer because I loved that I would be able to have a diverse course of study that includes both engineering and the liberal arts side of the school,” says Kittelsen, who is pursuing an engineering major modified with studio art and Thayer’s new human-centered design minor. “All of my close girlfriends are in the engineering program.”

Meredith Gurnee ’17 wanted an array of opportunities. “One of the main reasons I came to Dartmouth was because here I am allowed to play varsity soccer and go abroad. The fact that the engineering program has a foreign study program in Thailand really excited me,” she says. “I love how Dartmouth’s liberal arts environment allows you to get a degree in engineering, while also developing other areas to become a truly well-rounded student.”

She’s not alone. “I love that, with the A.B. program and/or fifth-year B.E., you can take plenty of other non-engineering classes that you’re interested in taking,” says Jessica Link ’17. “I plan on taking plenty of humanities courses, and I’ve already studied a foreign language abroad.”

Some Dartmouth women regard engineering as an appealing alternative to other professions. “I thought I would be premed and wanted to be a doctor, but a combination of factors, mostly admitting that I can’t stand being in hospitals, made me realize that I’d rather develop healthcare-related technology than work as a doctor. That’s when I turned to Thayer,” says Sophie Sheeline ’16, who has served as a teaching assistant  (TA) twice for ENGS 12: Design Thinking and once for ENGS 13: Virtual Medicine and Cybercare.

“Touring Thayer, I loved the community feel and hands-on experiences that I saw taking place everywhere. It has not disappointed,” says Abigail Reynolds ’17.

Our Place Gurnee Kittelsen
From left: Meredith Gurnee ’17 and Kelsey Kittelsen ’17.

These students are among the many students and members of Thayer’s faculty and staff who think that Thayer’s experiential approach to engineering, interplay with the liberal arts, and curricular flexibility create a particularly welcoming environment for students—including women.

In fact, the community environment appears to be so welcoming that today’s students say they don’t pay much attention to the number of women and men in their Thayer classrooms and labs—and that there’s little or no difference in the way women are treated.

“I really think the only difference in being a female student at Thayer is that sometimes people assume that I would want to work more on the design and creative portions of a project rather than the mechanical aspects,” says Christine Kanoff ’15, adding that the assumption isn’t accurate.
 

How did Thayer achieve an undergraduate population that’s nearly half women?

“By consciously focusing on the things that are appealing and intriguing to them,” says Myron Tribus Professor of Engineering Innovation John Collier ’72 Th’73 ’75 ’77, who reports that he regularly receives emails and phone calls from friends’ or alums’ high school daughters who are considering engineering. “They’re finding us,” he says.

And they like what they’re finding. “The project aspects of Thayer seem to appeal to women,” says Valerie Zhao ’15.

“Learning at Thayer goes beyond the technical aspects of engineering and considers how people relate to engineering problems, which is of particular interest to me,” says Rachel Margolese ’16.

Before getting to Thayer, however, many women find that they have to overlook outmoded but persistent stereotypes about engineering.

“Tools aren’t marketed toward the average woman,” says B.E. student Ariana Sopher ’14. “Construction toys are becoming more popular among girls, which is really exciting, but I almost never see a female on YouTube teaching me how to fix my bike when I look something like that up.”

“People told me when I was in high school that engineering is a male-dominated field, but at Dartmouth I haven’t felt out of place at all,” says Gurnee. “It is super exciting to see women pursing this path.”

Thayer’s enrollment trends are a substantial step toward a broader goal in engineering: the day when achieving gender parity is not news but the norm.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of an institution experiencing this kind of paradigm shift in student enrollments,” says Associate Professor of Engineering Karl Griswold. “Engineering as a discipline, and in society, has for too long failed to effectively tap into the full potential of women as engineers and scientists.”

 

From the beginning, Thayer makes it clear that students don’t have to be experienced with tools or building to study engineering.

“We certainly have a goal of making engineering comfortable for anyone, whether or not they are innate tinkerers,” says Collier, who has been teaching Thayer’s project-based ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering for decades.

“Historically we found that if we had groups of students and one or two are women, many of them choose to do oral presentations or reports over building,” says Collier. “If you’ve never built things, as many women haven’t, it can be intimidating.”

This longtime observation led Collier to work with the machine shop and the manager of the instructional labs to develop weekly two-hour skills sessions in which students work one-on-one with the staff to learn how to use computer-aided design software, fabrication tools, sensors, and actuators.

“We’ve pushed hard to create these modules that are set up to build skills,” Collier says. “It just so happened that the women may have benefitted the most.”

The skills-building sessions are designed to bring all beginners—regardless of gender—to new levels of preparedness and confidence. “All students are introduced to tools in the machine shop, which I think is empowering for everyone,” says Professor Vicki May.

Kittelsen says that gaining experience with tools made a big difference for her. “I’ve only felt discriminated against as a woman when I didn’t know how to use power tools, but I quickly learned in a very open, supportive environment,” she says. “There’s a lot more freedom, and in classes like ENGS 21 you use a lot of different skills to create the project.”
 

Thayer also makes an effort to bring undergraduate women into research labs by participating in Dartmouth’s Women in Science Project (WISP). Cofounded in 1990 by former Thayer associate dean Carol Muller ’77, WISP works to increase the number of female students pursuing STEM fields by pairing them with an internship in a lab.

“We’ve brought undergraduate women into our lab through WISP for more than a decade,” says Collier. “The WISP students end up recruiting each other. They talk to their roommates and suggest our lab.” Collier also notes that over the years he has advised many more female than male graduate students in his biomedical engineering lab.

Another draw for women is the modified major, which allows students to combine engineering with any of the sciences, economics, public policy, or studio art. Kittelsen, who followed in the footsteps of both her cousin Monica Martin de Bustamante ’08 Th’09 and her grandfather, Thayer Overseer John W. Ballard ’55 Th’56 Tu’56, says that a modified major will allow her to pursue a career in either architecture or engineering. “The modified major and minor offered at Thayer demonstrates how much effort Thayer has made to integrate the liberal arts side of Dartmouth into the engineering program,” says Kittelsen.
 

If there is one thing female students at Thayer say they need, it’s good role models because society still largely perceives engineering as a man’s job. Just look at movies, films, and news. “There are female doctors, but rarely engineers,” points out Lorin Paley ’15. She has seen an engineering generation gap right on campus. “Alumni come visit and are surprised at how ‘even girls are studying science these days,’ ” she says. But, she adds, “The women who made it to the point of being seniors at Thayer didn’t think twice about following their passions. That is why we are here still.”

Female engineering students at Thayer find support from their professors—male and female—and from each other. In ENGS 21, chances are there’s a female TA nearby to help them.

According to Collier, female ENGS 21 TAs have outnumbered male TAs for the past few years—and that this past winter, 11 out of 15 TAs for the course were women. He notes that his requirements for undergraduate TAs are that they had to have earned an A in ENGS 21 and that they share an enthusiasm for teaching. “Women teach as TAs just as well as men—maybe better,” Collier says. “I have had issues where dynamics between men and women within a group haven’t been optimal.

Women TAs are particularly good at divining what’s going on, meeting with me to discuss strategy, and then going back to put the group on its wheels and get it rolling again.”

Students at Thayer say they appreciate how Collier and other professors interact with them. They say that faculty are always ready to drop what they’re doing to help and don’t perceive women differently. “My professors treat me the same way they treat men,” says Zhao.

“Success in coursework is not and has never been dependent on gender. Rather, it is a consequence of learning the fundamental concepts and getting comfortable with innovation,” says Associate Professor Jane Hill. “We have reached a critical mass, and with that status people are more informed about what engineering can be and the cool things that evolve from the experiences at Thayer.”

May, who runs Thayer’s summer workshops for high school students, passionately advocates for women to pursue engineering. “At Thayer, all students are expected to jump in and work on projects, and that helps encourage them,” she says. “It’s important to show the young female students that it is possible to make it in the world of engineering.”

Female students say they would like to have more female professors at Thayer. Currently, out of 53 core faculty members, 10 are women.

“I think it has been really important to have role models, but the fact is, I’ve only had three female professors out of all of the classes I’ve taken at Thayer. I would really like to see that number increase,” says Sopher.

“With the expansion of Thayer, I would love to see more female and other minority group professors join the ranks of the impressive engineering faculty,” agrees Allison Brouckman ’15, who, like many Thayer B.E. women, is studying biomedical engineering.

Meanwhile, at information and open house sessions for high school students and first-year Dartmouth students, Thayer professors—male and female—encourage young women to pursue engineering. And, says Holly Wilkinson, Thayer’s assistant dean of academic and student affairs, “Once students are at Dartmouth, we look for ways to engage them in the Thayer community.”

But the strongest ambassadors for female students are the students themselves. Many women say they heard about the hands-on learning environment directly from the source: the “girls’ club” that has formed around current and former female engineering undergraduates.

“I have encouraged freshmen and sophomores to think about engineering as an option for a major, and I tell them I definitely never feel discriminated against based on my gender,” says Sopher. “I’ve always felt that my work is evaluated as an engineering student, never having anything to do with the fact that I am a female.

—Anna Fiorentino is senior writer at Dartmouth Engineer.

 

Female Engineering Majors

DARTMOUTH
Class of 2016:  48%
Class of 2015:  42%

NATIONAL AVERAGE
19%
 

Categories: Features

Tags: curriculum, faculty, history, STEM, students

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