A discussion among women engineers recently took place at the office of the Interim Dean at the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences/ University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Part 1 focused on career challenges; Part 2 of the dialogue highlights issues of STEM education. Convened by Lulu Copeland, the diverse discussion group included participants from the Chattanooga and North Georgia area.
• Dr. Neslihan Alp: Interim Dean – UTC College of Engineering and Computer Sciences. She has a an industrial engineering degree and a degree in Engineering Management. Dr. Alp is a pioneer in the field of online learning and is currently engaged in revamping the college’s educational structure.
• LuLu Copeland: Manager, Extended Technical Education & Training, Engineering Technology Division at Chattanooga State Technical Community College. She coordinates training with the college and the Wacker Institute. Wacker Polysilicon is a German chemical manufacturing company opening aTennessee plant. LuLu has a masters degree in Engineering Management.
• Jill Schauer and Shane Wood: Accellent Inc., a chemical engineering facility with a workforce of 5,000 employees. Jill is Director of Operations of the Georgia plant dealing with clients such as Johnson & Johnson and Meditronics. She has a degree in chemical engineering and Lean Six-Sigma certification. Shane is the Engineering Manager with dual degrees in engineering and liberal arts/communications who is also working on a Masters degree in Bio-medical Engineering.
• Kim Stone: Production Superintendent, Specialty Catalysts at W. R. Grace & Co., a Materials Facility of catalysts to oil companies world wide. Kim has a degree in chemical engineering and Six Sigma certification. She worked for Dow Chemical in Texas before relocating to Georgia.
After discussing their personal career paths in Part 1, the participants turned to STEM education. Here is a recap of the statistics that Dr. Alp shared for the UTC College of Engineering and Computer Science where mechanical engineering students are almost all male and there is no female faculty in either mechanical or electrical engineering. “The highest number of female students is in the Chemical Engineering undergraduate program (32%) and the lowest number is in the Technology undergraduate program (6%). In total we have 1079 students who are currently enrolled in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, and just 172 of them are female (16%).”
Efforts to increase women in STEM education have been successful, but the participants noted that success has been at a slow and very modest rate. Underlying the conversation was a sense of urgency, knowing that there a modest number of women in college classes and the numbers tend to shrink before graduation. Many women students don’t think that they have a voice in engineering classes. Further, faculty may not recognize that women process information differently.
The number of women who drop out due to the invisibility, criticism, and lack of inclusion is unacceptable. Concerned over the loss of students who enter the College of Engineering and Computer Science, Dr. Alp is determined to make a difference as Interim Dean. “Students are our customers. It will take time to see that the students are served better. I’m a fighter; I work hard and try to be a good role model for my students.”
The participants then discussed changes in STEM careers that will impact students. There is a strong trend in corporations to emphasize team building and soft skills. Employers now need and demand soft skills, especially in management positions, where communication is key at all levels: on the manufacturing floor, with vendors, and with customers.
A second trend noted in the changing work environment, is the need for cross-over expertise. For example, Engineers in manufacturing need both chemical and mechanical engineering skills. Lulu Copeland noted that in the past, the first two years of an engineering degree were wide-ranging, before specializing. Today, flexibility is assumed but not taught or structured into the degree. Nodding in agreement, the participants shared that women engineers have much to offer in this regard. Women engineers are used to wearing multiple hats and juggling time, tasks, and people.
Addressing these trends, the group expresses concern over the lack of both soft skills education and cross-over training in STEM degrees. At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the numbers of classes available have increased in each focus area such as chemical and mechanical engineering. However, the depth of study and each focus area has meant a loss of the floor of unifying, universal studies. In addition, there are few communication courses tailored to STEM needs available.
Dr. Alp has plans to coordinate the college with these emerging workplace trends. Recruiting more women students is part of that plan. Women should have an advantage in the emerging in part due to their decision-making style and sensitivities related to conflict. They are not solely data-driven and they tend to consider their audience more frequently. Further, they anticipate the response for more effective communication and customize their approach for better results. The panel gave the example of a mother dealing with the differences in her children and treating each one of them as per their learning styles and personalities.
Not surprisingly, each participant felt strongly about recruiting and motivating young women to pursue STEM careers early in their education. There was concern that if no one at home works in engineering or other STEM fields, the interest and skills won’t develop. Compounding the problem, school counselors are caring, but have very limited understanding of STEM careers.
Knowing that the lack of information can be demoralizing, the participants make themselves available to speak to student groups. The students range from college down to high school, and even into elementary schools. Their discussion emphasized the impact of networking, as well as increased community outreach and visibility. Above all, there is an urgent need to coordinate education institutions with industries to provide internships opportunities.
Along those lines, the participants who manage manufacturing plants, Kim Stone, Jill Schauer and Shane Wood, are currently conducting student tours of their facilities. They encourage others in similar positions to offer tour opportunities, if they’re not doing so already. They key is to emphasize outreach to the community and to improve communicate about STEM education and careers for women.