While more and more women study for and enter technology fields every year, women leave high technology, computer, science and engineering careers twice as frequently as men.
Just look at the faces of the engineers at your next meeting or conference and you’ll see something obvious: it’s still a male-dominated profession. While more and more women study for and enter technology fields every year, the unexpected truth is that they don’t stay. In fact, according to a recent study by the National Research Council, women leave high technology, computer, science and engineering careers twice as frequently as men.
Why do women leave the profession, or not consider entering it in the first place? “One of the problems is that nobody really knows what engineers do,” says Karen Panetta, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tufts University and creator of the nationally acclaimed “Nerd Girls” education program. Women especially don’t see the reasons for becoming electrical or mechanical engineers because they don’t understand the roles engineers play. “Other fields, like biomedical, are popular for women because they see the end goal and it motivates them,” Panetta says.
Because she got her start in industry instead of going right into teaching, Panetta says she has a different perspective on how to teach students, both men and women. “I don’t treat my students like students. I treat them like team members. It’s a team effort in industry, and in learning. You have to participate by asking questions and doing lab reports.”
In her classes, and in her Nerd Girls curriculum, Panetta picks projects that give her teams concrete goals. “Everything has a way to benefit the community, individuals or the environment,” she says. “Unless you show your students that you’re putting your theory to practice, you’re just teaching history.”
The first project she had one of her Nerd Girl teams work on was building a solar car. “You don’t usually see women with cars,” she says. But the sustainable energy project, and others like it, showed her students that EEs weren’t spending their lives sitting in cubicles working on meaningless tasks. “Women need to see the big picture, not just a small piece of the puzzle.”
Forcing young women to work in teams on tough projects also encourages them to break through their confidence issues. “Even though women might score well on exams, they think it is pure luck,” says Panetta. “I couldn’t imagine having so little self-confidence. Succeeding, to me, is not by the grade, it’s by focusing on your own learning experience. So I picked class projects that were absolutely intimidating. You couldn’t do them on your own, you needed a team. The research and theory that they learned taught them to ask the right questions, which is the key to finding the right solutions.”
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