Sisterhood of science
BEING FEMALE IN MALE-DOMINATED SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PROGRAMS CAN BE LONELY AT TIMES. HERE’S WHAT THE U IS DOING TO ATTRACT MORE WOMEN AND GIRLS.
Rachel Anderson was always good at science and math. She was artistic, too, and wanted to use her talents to help people. When thinking about majors, “engineering checked those boxes,” she recalls.
But after she got accepted into the University of Minnesota’s mechanical engineering program, she started feeling very alone. “I found myself as the only woman in my labs or one of the only ones in a lecture with 50 students,” she recalls.
Anderson’s experience isn’t unusual. The reality is that most engineering programs are dominated by men. Although the U saw a record number of women in its programs in the spring of 2019, they made up only 28 percent of graduate and undergraduate students in the College of Science and Engineering. Considering that 54 percent of all enrolled students on the Twin Cities campus are female, there’s still a ways to go.
The U has launched a number of efforts to bring more women and girls into science and engineering. Meet some of the people who are making that happen, thanks in part to donor support.
It’s lunchtime and about three dozen teenaged girls from computer science and engineering professor Maria Gini’s summer computing camp have taken over a classroom in the basement of Keller Hall. Some snack on fruit and cookies while drawing pictures or playing hangman on whiteboards. Others sit quietly absorbed in books or their phones.
They’re about to head into the computer lab, where they’ll spend the afternoon writing code that will become animated Father’s Day cards, 3D-printed objects, and a rock-paper-scissors game, to name a few.
This is the fifth year that Gini has offered the camp, which is designed to ignite interest in computer science and encourage the girls to consider it as a career. “The main issue in computer science is lack of diversity,” Gini says. “Most of the undergrad programs are 15 to 20 percent women. The only way to increase those numbers is to start when they’re young.”
She says the inspiration for the camp came from an anonymous donor, who heard about girls in a former Soviet country who were learning about programming. When Gini, who had worked with the Girl Scouts in Italy, offered up the idea of doing a camp for girls, that donor provided the initial funding.
Since then, the camp has received support from Best Buy and, this year, Polaris, allowing the U to keep tuition minimal and provide scholarships for those who can’t afford it. “We couldn’t do this without their support,” says Shana Watters, an instructor who helped run the camp. “They’re the real heroes for investing in the state’s young adults.”
Businesses not only want to bring more women into computer science and engineering fields, but also want to see more of them do research.
For the past two years, Google has awarded grants to the University of Minnesota to encourage female students to pursue graduate studies and careers in research.
Last year, Maria Gini, professor of computer science and engineering at the U, and Shana Watters, an instructor in the department, hosted a weekend workshop in conjunction with the University of Minnesota Duluth. Approximately 40 students did a project and created posters they presented at the Midwest Women in Computing regional conference.
This year, they’re planning workshops in which students will conduct research, learn how to approach a professor about joining a research group, or apply for a research experience. (UMD is doing its own program.)
“We want women to have the support they need to make the leap to doing research,” Watters says.
CAMPERS MEET CAMPUS
During their time on campus, the campers learn Python, a programming language. They use it to program circuit boards and handheld robots, design 3D-printed objects, and build animated games and apps.
“Working with Python is like a puzzle,” says camper Maddy Fahey, a freshman at Maple Grove Senior High School.
Adds Annika Minge, whose favorite project was programming a circuit board to move an attached laser pointer, “It’s really cool when you see the robot actually doing something.”
Spending time in class and in the lab is only part of the experience. Campers do projects at the U’s Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center, take in noontime concerts on Northrop Plaza, work in the U’s Anderson Student Innovation Labs, and hear from professors. They’re also mentored by female undergraduate and graduate engineering students, who help them with projects and answer their questions about what it takes to get into top colleges.
“I want to make sure all of them think big,” Gini says.
Although she doesn’t formally track what the campers go on to do, Gini says some stay in touch and come back to volunteer. Several campers-turned-volunteers are now studying computer science at the U’s Twin Cities and Duluth campuses, and another is at MIT. “One of the girls who helped last year is now working in one of our research groups,” she says.
Gini knows not everyone will go on to study computer science. But she wants the girls to come away with an appreciation for coding, as many jobs will require an understanding of it in the future. “My goal is to say ‘Don’t leave computer science out of the picture.’”
Last year, Rose Slater was the first female project manager for Gopher Motorsports, a student group that enters a race car each year in a competition organized by Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) International.
She spent as many as 50 hours a week assigning tasks, keeping the team on schedule, interacting with the companies that provide support, and helping design and build the car. For Slater, it was time well-spent. “I really got the big picture,” she says.
Slater, a senior studying electrical engineering, learned about the team as a freshman. Knowing little about cars and noticing the team was mostly male, she felt intimidated. But she decided it would be a good engineering challenge and went for it.
That type of thinking prompted her to step up to leadership as well. Any doubts about her abilities evaporated. “There was no time for them,” she says. The team started designing in August so that it could manufacture parts by December, weld them by February, and run tests before the Formula SAE event in May. The team finished ninth out of 122.
Slater says scholarship support has enabled her to devote time to what she loves: “Having the scholarships takes the pressure off, so I can focus on becoming a better engineer.”
From the time she started as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota in 2015, Rachel Anderson tried to connect with other women in engineering. She joined the campus chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. She also got involved in Design U, a student club.
The mechanical engineering major met women from other engineering fields and colleges but not from her own department. “Our department is around 18 percent women, which boils down to about 90 women and 500 guys,” says Anderson, who was often the only woman in her labs.
“There were challenges with being the only woman. It often felt like this wasn’t the place I wanted to be,” she recalls.
Living and Learning Together
This fall, 65 first-year female College of Science and Engineering students moved into WISE House, a living learning community in Frontier Hall.
As members of WISE House, which is sponsored by Medtronic, they’re paired with a mentor—a female engineer from Medtronic—and take part in networking events and other activities.
WISE House is one component of the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) initiative at the U. Open to all students, WISE offers professional development trips (last year, a group traveled to Ireland), mentorships, study groups, and resume writing and interviewing workshops.
“Having a support system and community you can turn to that says, ‘You’re not alone; you’re meant to be here’ is so important,” says Samantha Franco, assistant director of the WISE initiative.
Other student groups that support and encourage women in STEM fields include University of Minnesota chapters of:
• Society of Women Engineers
• Association for Women in Mathematics
• Association for Computing Machinery for Women
• Alpha Sigma Kappa—Women in Technical Studies
• IEEE Women in Engineering
Anderson wasn’t the only one feeling a need for community within mechanical engineering. Faculty and staff noticed it as well. With support from the department, Anderson and fellow student Kristin Johnson founded She is ME, a group for female mechanical engineering students, in 2017. “We wanted to get to know our peers and encourage each other,” Anderson says.
She is ME got off to a fast start, holding its first event at the end of the semester—a painting party that drew about 30 attendees. The club has since brought in female professors to speak to the group, hosted panel discussions with women in industry, sponsored professional development activities, and held workshops to help members build robots for the Intro to Mechanical Engineering robot show—a requirement for second-year students applying to the mechanical engineering program.
“We see a huge drop-off in women right after that course,” Anderson says. “My own experience was an overwhelming feeling of intimidation. The guys in the class had this confidence, even if it was something they hadn’t done before. We wanted to show the women that it was OK and that they would get through it.”
Anderson is now in graduate school and working in the U’s Human/Machine Design Lab, where she is designing a robotic ankle for children with cerebral palsy. She’s also a teaching assistant in the U’s robotics lab.
A recipient of numerous scholarships, including the Robin and Barbara Schaller Scholarship, she says such support allowed her the time to launch She is ME, which has drawn a core group of women and their male supporters. “It mattered a lot to me that I was in a position where I could make a difference,” she says. “It was really needed in our department.”
Anderson says getting to know the Schallers, who have funded and attended She is ME activities, has been a bonus. “Both are huge supporters of our group and of women in engineering,” she says. “It’s been a very special relationship.”
Her Best Shot
Senior Laura Irvine can boast she’s led a team to the Final Four. The mechanical engineering major, who does not play basketball, was project lead for a University of Minnesota Robotics team that competed in the Land O’Lakes Bot Shot Championship in April.
Minnesota’s 2.5-foot tall, 105-pound entry, which swivels on a lazy-Susan-type turret, came in third. “It had to shoot from anywhere in the field, so it had to know how far the basket was, what angle it was at, and how high to shoot the ball,” she says.
For Irvine, who has been involved with robotics since middle school, the event was one more opportunity to do what she loves. “What stands out to me the most about robotics isn’t so much the robots, it’s the process,” she says. “It’s working on a team, having an end product."
Over time, she’s grown comfortable being one of the few women on those teams. “We all have our skills and bring unique things to the table,” she says.
The PTC/FIRST Scholarship Irvine received, which is given to students who participated in robotics in high school, gives her time to devote to her passion. “It’s been fantastic having that every year,” she says. “It’s a blessing.”
Hear more from the women who led the Gopher Motorsports team: