By Daniel Estep, College of Engineering and Architecture intern
PULLMAN, Wash. – Fifty years ago if you peeked into an engineering class in Dana Hall, you would see a group of men sitting at drafting tables with slide rules. Today if you peek into many engineering classes, you see a group of mostly men sitting at computers.
While women have joined what used to be traditionally male-dominated fields, such as medicine and law, they have largely continued to stay away from engineering.
The Women’s Mentoring Program at Washington State University aims to help women engineering students succeed by matching students with practicing engineers who are women.
Alumni help start program
Students can talk to mentors about classes, as well as what they do on a day-to-day basis, said Cara Poor, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and advisor for the WSU Chapter of the Society for Women Engineers, which runs the program.
The program wouldn’t be possible without the support of WSU mechanical engineering graduates Gary and Sandy Fryer, said Poor. Sandy noticed a need for an increase in the number of female engineers and donated money to get the program started in 2008.
When Sandy attended WSU as a student, she had several mechanical engineering professors serve as mentors for her. Her contributions are a way to give back to the program.
The program matches mentors and students based on field of study and hometown. The idea is that the mentor and student will keep in contact throughout the college years and hopefully beyond, Poor said. There are also potentials for job-shadows and internships through contact with the mentor.
Pioneering in STEM fields
“When you look around the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, you see a lack of women,” said Shelley Pressley, WSU assistant research professor and mentor.
A lot of work has gone into studying why that is so, she said. At the elementary and middle school age, boys and girls perform at the same level. But as they progress, girls start to fall out of the STEM fields, she said.
Many students have benefited from partnering with someone who has already gone through similar experiences. Julie Rausch, a senior civil engineering student and the mentoring program coordinator, decided to join the program after accepting an internship and being one of only two women out of 20 interns.
“We have a great opportunity to learn from a successful female about how to link our experiences in college and in the industry,” Rausch said.
Women’s contributions valuable
Another senior civil engineering student, Sabrina Fandler, used her experiences with the program to land an internship.
“At first I didn’t know what a civil engineer was,” Fandler said. “I was able to go on a job shadow with my mentor and go to her office. Just being in the office helped me make a choice on whether or not I would like working in this environment.”
Mentors are able to help guide and prepare students for the industry while also talking about their careers in an unbiased fashion.
“I wish that I had a mentor when I was at WSU because it was difficult on my own,” said Linda Angel, a mentor and a spokesperson for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). “Women are valuable because they have a different approach than men in the sciences. They have something else to contribute.”
Retention up to 72 percent
The program has seen success so far. In the years since its implementation in 2008, the number of women staying in engineering at WSU has increased from 50 percent to 72 percent. The program currently has 90 students and 60 mentors.
On Nov. 5, students, particularly female students, are invited to a luncheon to meet with faculty and industry members in engineering.
The program continues to look for new mentors and students. For more information and to register for the luncheon, go here.