STEMing the Engineering Brain Drain

Author: William Meiners

Purdue's renowned program continues to inspire, recruit and retain through creative approaches.

What the world may need — now more than ever — is more women engineers. In the United States alone, where women wield more than half the buying power, it makes good business sense. Why not have more women involved in designing the technology and services they're buying?

For Beth Holloway the economic logic is just one draw to the field of engineering. Success stories are another. As director of the Women in Engineering Program (WIEP) for a decade now, Holloway (BSME '92, MSME '97) has been helping share those stories and hands-on activities with K-12 audiences, along with the existing student body (both male and female) of Purdue engineering students.

The young women participating in Exciting Discoveries for Girls in Engineering (EDGE) design and build engineering-based group projects and participate in experiments during laboratory tours. Current Purdue engineering students serve as camp facilitators and mentors. Throughout EDGE and four other programs for girls from K-12, engineering is highlighted as a profession where creativity and imagination are used to solve problems for the betterment of society.

Purdue has played a historic role in the recruitment of women to engineering. Founded through the former Freshman Engineering Department in 1969, WIEP was the nation's first such organization. Purdue also has the longest continuously chartered student section of the Society of Women Engineers, which organized nationally in 1954. In 1969, when women made up less than 1 percent of Purdue's engineering student population, the goal was simply to spread the word in hopes of increasing the numbers. Holloway says that her predecessors set a goal to have 1,000 women enrolled in the various engineering disciplines after five years. They fell six short.

With Purdue's WIEP as a model and through national networks, a number of universities began their own programs to ease the path of women engineers. Though this may have taken some female engineers away from Purdue, it benefited the profession as a whole, Holloway says.

Holloway says the number of Purdue's female engineers has fluctuated over the years, the biggest boom occurring in the early 1990s. This year's freshman engineering class may be as much as 25 percent women. But the calls to increase student totals in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines are louder than ever. In June, President Barack Obama announced plans to train 10,000 American engineers every year.

To ensure that more of those 10,000 are young women, Holloway believes the engineering community needs to change the way it touts itself. "When we look at the data, the women who apply to engineering are absolutely academic superstars," she says. "The men who apply have a wider range of academic performance. Research indicates that more men are encouraged to go into engineering. If they tinker, for example, someone might say, "You should be an engineer.' And while their academic performance is strong, it is not as tightly clustered at the top."

The lack of encouragement from parents, guidance counselors and even the young women themselves could be keeping them away from engineering studies. WIEP outreach activities through summer camps and after-school programs are designed to spark minds for engineering as young as kindergarten.

Part of stirring the imagination for the possibilities of engineering means eliminating the misconceptions. "A lot of girls think engineering is dull, boring and nerdy," says Jennifer Groh, associate director of WIEP. "They think it's not creative and you end up working alone."

What they end up learning, Groh says, is that engineers really make things better. "They don't necessarily see what the engineers are doing because it's behind the scenes. But we really showcase how engineering makes a difference."

Exposure to engineering stories, whether it's a fifth-grader relating to the studies of a current Purdue student or an undergrad being inspired by a successful alumna, also help separate facts from fiction. Holloway remembers listening to Donna VanKlompenburg (BSME '82) and Sue Abreu (BSIDE '78) speaking to her ENGR 194 class, the Women in Engineering Seminar, which still brings in alumni to talk about their diverse careers.

"The alums are a big part of making our program as successful as it is," says Holloway, who worked as a research and development engineer at Cummins for nine years before returning to her alma mater. "I don't think we would have the outstanding participation from students that we do without that alumni involvement."

Lindsey Diggelmann, a master's student in civil engineering, will join those Purdue alumni in May 2012, no doubt with her own stories. "If you like engineering, you should definitely pursue it," says Diggelmann, who majored in oboe performance at Michigan State but ultimately got "hooked" on structural engineering. "Don't listen to anyone who says it's just a boys' club. It changes every year and there are more girls."