Dartmouth Creates History By Graduating More Female Than Male Engineers

Posted By Terri Williams on July 6, 2016 at 7:36 am
Dartmouth Creates History By Graduating More Female Than Male Engineers

Dartmouth College is accustomed to making history. It’s one of the nine colonial colleges founded before the American Revolution, and it’s one of the eight prestigious Ivy League schools. But this time, Dartmouth’s making history for another reason: this year, its Thayer School of Engineering graduated more female engineers than male ones.  But this isn’t only a first for Dartmouth – it’s a first for any research institution in the United States.

Fully understanding the significance of this achievement may require some background information.  According to recent research, employers are facing an engineering talent shortage, and America will soon need foreign labor to fill STEM jobs.  Also, the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees are in engineering, but there are several factors stopping women from entering and staying in STEM areas.

Women only account for 14.8 percent of the country’s engineers and only receive 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering, according to the National Science Foundation.  And that is what makes Dartmouth’s accomplishment so astounding.

Joseph J. Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, told GoodCall that Thayer focuses on details at many different levels.“We expose students to all engineering disciplines and encourage them to see engineering broadly, as a collaborative enterprise focused on solving real-world challenges.”

The School also emphasizes project-based learning that is hands-on and collaborative. Helble believes that students prefer this to traditional lectures, and they also learn more deeply through this type of process.

He adds that Thayer hires faculty members who are not only great scholars but also entrepreneurs, and perhaps most importantly, they’re also great teachers. “We focus on identifying a diverse pool of talented role models for students at all levels; faculty are essential, but we are also attentive to project review boards, teaching assistants, and technical staff—everyone matters.”

Another factor is positive momentum, and Helble says Thayer’s numbers have been growing consistently for a while. “Our engineering students and graduates are recognized on campus for being smart, creative and achieving great success, and I think the successes of our female students, combined with our widely-recognized collaborative environment, attracts more women to engineering at Dartmouth.”

Many women students in engineering and other STEM subjects lament the lack of female mentors and role models. Helble believes that it’s important to see women in these roles, not just as faculty members but at all levels. “As our program has attracted more women, we have even more impressive stories to tell about the success of our female graduates, including their inventions, patents, start-ups, and the impact they’re making wherever they bring their talents.”

GoodCall also assembled a team of women professors and deans and asked them if other schools could experience similar success using Thayer’s model.

Fixing the environment

Elizabeth M. Dell, faculty associate to the provost for female faculty, and associate professor of mechanical engineering technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology, tells GoodCall that Dartmouth Thayer’s accomplishment is impressive and identifies key strategies in attracting and retaining women students. “Research is showing that to retain women students, the content and context of what is taught in the engineering classroom needs to be relatable to women and engaging.” Dell also notes that more schools and organizations are sharing course content that instructors at engineering schools can use in their class.

However, Dell believes what really stands out about Dartmouth is that its strategies focused on the environment. “It is not about ‘fixing’ the women so they will fit in – it’s about ‘fixing’ the engineering learning environment so it’s effective for a broader, more diverse group of students.”

She says it is equally impressive that Dartmouth recruited enough women into its programs to graduate more women than men. “Getting women to enroll in engineering programs is a critical part of the equation in graduating more women, and this demonstrates the importance of having a critical mass of women in engineering programs.” Women are more likely to be attracted to programs where they feel comfortable and believe they can succeed, Dell says.

One size may not fill all

However, Dartmouth’s size – it is the smallest of the Ivy League schools – may afford it more freedom and control than many other schools. Adrienne R. Minerick, Ph.D., associate dean for research & innovation in the College of Engineering, and professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Michigan Technological University, believes this type of accomplishment is easier to achieve at a school like Dartmouth than at other types of colleges and universities. “When the institution is private, has unregulated control over admissions, and abundant resources,” she says it operates by different rules than public institutions.

“So while this is commendable, Dartmouth is a small, isolated bubble with finite numbers of students—most of who hail from the top echelon of socio-economic classes.”  However, Minerick explains, “Pervasive, widespread changes to enrollment and persistence at a national scale requires that all students (including those from ALL socio-economic classes and backgrounds) have access to and support to thrive in engineering – even at institutions with limited resources influenced by state governments.”

Keys to attracting and retaining female engineers

So what can other (larger, public) schools do to attract and retain women? Changing the image and public perception of engineering may be one way to alter the gender makeup in this field. According to Dr. Callie Babbitt, associate professor in the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology, “If you do an Internet image search for ‘engineer,’ most results show a man wearing a hard hat and working alone, a perception problem that may discourage female students from pursuing engineering degrees.”

“Engineering is highly collaborative and relies on broad skills in communication, team-work, problem-solving, leadership, and creativity” Babbitt says, applauding Dartmouth’s approach to present and teach engineering as a collaborative and inclusive discipline that solves real-world problems.

This approach results in two positive outcomes. “Building collaborative, user-inspired learning opportunities into the curriculum is not only expected to foster the interest and engagement of female students, it should also lead to graduates who are better prepared to succeed in the rapidly evolving team-based workplace.”

Beena Sukumaran, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering at Rowan University, gave GoodCall a bullet list of ideas:

Attracting women into engineering

  • Emphasize how engineering benefits humankind.
  • Discuss the creative aspects of engineering and how a well-rounded student can be very successful.
  • Avoid the traditional portrayal of engineers as solitary, nerdy, and lacking social skills.
  • Highlight activities of student organizations that are working in the social justice space (like Engineers Without Borders, or other similar organizations).

Retaining women in engineering

  • Define engineering problems in a larger context.
  • Use examples in the classroom that resonate with women.
  • Change the way we teach and test; avoid the stereotype threat.
  • Provide training for peers and faculty on how to be more inclusive and avoid microaggressions.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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