Daily Iowan: WISE Women Admire Program

Thursday, February 20, 2014

By Lily Abromeit
Daily Iowan

From their first year in school to their freshman year of college, females are exposed to science, math, and technology in the hopes that one day, some of them will pursue a career in the science or engineering.

In its 20th year at the University of Iowa, the WISE — Women in Science and Engineering — program is noticing improvements in encouraging women to pursue careers in science- and engineering-related fields.

“Universities started paying attention to how many women they were recruiting and bringing into all of their programs,” UI President Sally Mason told The Daily Iowan earlier this week. “It made a difference … [and] we’ve come a long way in that period of time.”

According to the UI’s WISE 2014 DEERE Proposal, 25 percent of students involved in the program were first-generation college students, and 48 percent were Iowa residents. In 2012, ethnic minorities earned only 12.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, 7.9 percent of all master’s degrees, and 4.6 percent of all doctoral degrees in engineering, according to the American Society of Engineering Education.

Chris Peterson Brus, the UI director of WISE, said the program was originally created to find ways to keep young women interested in the STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — pipeline.

Brus said she thinks the fierce continuation of the project and dedication to help these women succeed is what has created a difference in the programs on campus.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvements in some of the STEM areas, especially in the more biological science sort of areas and … there’s really an emphasis that we’re starting to [grow] in engineering,” she said, noting there is still difficulty in retention when it comes to heavy math and technology related subjects.

The key, she said, to maintain and increase success is to keep the traditional projects and outreach current as the pipeline is “about concerted, long-term support.” One way to do this, she said, is to focus on what the young women want to get out of the program and cater to those needs.

“We don’t want to create a monoculture where we look at every student the same … because when we do that, we know that not all the populations will thrive,” she said. “We need to recognize that if we want an equitable system, that means we have to look at what inputs people need, in order to create [better] outcomes.”

Brus said the hardest thing the program fights is the traditional idea that science and engineering jobs are for men.

“There are still those pre-conceived [notions] we hold as a society,” she said. “And those seemingly take their toll.”

To combat this, WISE has been working for 20 years to help women realize their potential in the fields. Brus said the program supports groups that focus on elementary school students, as well as sponsor projects such as Lead The Way, for pre-engineering education.

At the college level, she said the focus is more on the first two years in the program, which Brus said are the most crucial to maintain high retention rates.

“For the WISE program, there was early recognition that we needed to create a community … during the undergraduate years, because for young women [it is necessary] to have that community,” she said. “These relationships are really foundational.”

UI sophomore Kaitlyn Engelken is majoring in electrical engineering and is a member of the WISE Living and Learning Community. She said it is a good place to meet people of similar interests.

“Now, it’s really great because I do my homework with everyone because we all have the same homework, and with engineering you really have to work together,” she said. ”The engineering program is pretty challenging so it’s really nice to have the support of the other females around you to encourage you.”