Daily Iowan: UI Looks to Increase Female Engineers

Monday, March 21, 2011

By Heather Edelman
Daily Iowan

Caitlin Andersen was ready to pursue a law degree before she came to the University of Iowa in fall 2009.

But Andersen, who excelled at math and science throughout high school, decided she couldn’t let her talents go to waste.

So after receiving advice from a professor at Texas A&M before her freshman year, she began to consider a career in engineering.

“Law is good, but engineering something that has been put on this Earth to benefit the world is second to none,” she said the professor told her.

Andersen researched the UI College of Engineering and said it ended up being a perfect fit.

“I would have to say the challenges engineering presents me and the opportunities it provides me for my future are the best parts about pursuing an engineering degree,” she said.

The chemical engineering major is part of the nearly 20 percent of undergraduates enrolled in the engineering school who are female.

But officials said they want that number to grow.

“[Engineering] is an option for anyone, and it certainly should not be one that is ruled out due to a person’s sex,” Andersen said.

The UI’s percentage of female engineering students is above the national average of 16 percent, but Alec Scranton, interim dean of the engineering school, said the number isn’t where he thinks it should be.

Scranton said he thinks the college should have the same proportion of women as the entire university, which is above 50 percent. He said a variety of perspectives enhances the field.

And the effort to increase the number of women in the program is already underway.

UI graduate Kelly Ortberg recently donated $50,000 to the college to recruit undergraduate females interested in engineering.

“My motivation behind this gift is to establish a scholarship that can help young women enter this field and earn their degree,” Ortberg said.

In order to boost female representation, officials also plan to increase female faculty, sponsor outreach programs to middle-school and high-school girls, support student groups such as the Society of Women Engineers, and provide additional scholarships.

“From there, I think the sky is the limit for rewarding careers for these young women with engineering skills,” Ortberg said.

Nationally in fall 2009, more than 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to women, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. That’s up from 17.5 percent in 2007.

Peg Bruszewski, a co-leader of the North American Women’s Leadership Collaborative Recruitment and Retention Working Group, said it’s important to ensure that young people understand the role of engineers in their daily lives. She said it’s especially important for girls, who historically have not been involved in the engineering field.

“Third through fifth grade is a very impressionable time for girls,” she said. “Therefore, it’s important to introduce them to science.”