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SMU successfully attracts women engineers

For 10 years, Southern Methodist University’s Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering has successfully exceeded the national average of the incoming women undergraduates
SMU successfully attracts women engineers

Southern Methodist University’s (SMU’s) Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering is celebrating 10 years of success in addressing a national need to attract more women into engineering.

Women have averaged more than 30% of incoming undergraduates in the Lyle School since 2005, exceeding the national average of about 20% in American colleges and universities.  Last year women made up 37.4% of Lyle students receiving undergraduate degrees. For fall 2015, 100 out of 295 first-year students enrolled as engineering pre-majors at SMU are women – almost 34% of the total. 

“Not only are we recruiting strong women, we are accomplishing the more difficult challenge of retaining these students,” said Marc Christensen, dean of the Lyle School. “But we’ve got to do more.  Are we bringing the best engineers to the world’s problems?  Not if women and members of minority groups feel discouraged for any reason about pursuing engineering as a field of study or as a career.”

How has the Lyle School maintained that 30% average?

“It’s our culture – not a program,” said Christensen.  “For example, if you walk into our Deason Innovation Gym to watch our students at work on an engineering design challenge, you’ll see a mix of men and women working together seamlessly.”

Success in attracting and keeping women in the Lyle School is less about percentages and more about all students feeling that they are part of something meaningful, Christensen said. To gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding these efforts, the school’s Caruth Institute for Engineering Education is examining the potential for research that would help provide answers for what works in recruiting women and underrepresented minorities into university engineering programs, as well as what types of programs and classroom approaches engage them.  

Organizations across the country have taken on the challenge of sparking an interest in math and science among younger girls, knowing that doors are shut to possible STEM careers long before girls begin applying to colleges.  At the Lyle School, for example, a variety of summer camps for girls offer fun activities for middle school and high school girls ranging from robotics to forensic science.

The Lyle School also has an active student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which is heavily involved in taking the message of engineering for women to Dallas-area schoolgirls through volunteer science and engineering outreach activities.  By visiting elementary schools and co-hosting with the Dallas Section of SWE programs like the “Design Your World” STEM Conference for Girls, the college women are hoping to help put the younger girls on the same path they have chosen.

At “Design Your World,” 150 girls from around North Texas, met at SMU 14 November for activities that “teach by doing” the science behind such things as making polymer jewelry and twinkling, electronic bracelets as well as computer programming and indoor rollercoaster racing.  Lyle student Rachel Ann Sheppard, 23, who will graduate from SMU’s Lyle School in May 2016 with a master’s degree in operations research, was there to help. She enjoys doing the volunteer outreach activities like “Design Your World” because it gives her the opportunity to help young girls connect engineering to their own lives and see the opportunities available.

“If it’s a smaller group, we introduce ourselves and explain our disciplines and try to relate that to something they can understand,” explained Sheppard, who is president of the Lyle School’s student section of SWE.  “I say, ‘Do you know what people in my major do? We help your food get to the grocery store in the most efficient way.’ And they say, ‘That sounds really cool.’”

Sheppard grew up in a suburb of Houston adjacent to the Johnson Space Center.  She went to school with astronauts’ kids and had a natural aptitude for numbers, earning a near perfect score on the math segment of the SAT.

But, for younger girls who can’t tap a neighborhood space center for inspiration, Sheppard thinks outreach programs that show girls how to build robots or learn fun computer programming can be an eye-opener.   “I’m still surprised myself to find out how many applications there are for engineering,” Sheppard said.

Image: STEM Conference for Girls/Rachel Sheppard

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