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Women now outnumber men in undergraduate collegiate enrollment and, together with minorities, make up more than half the U.S. workforce. Yet, they remain underrepresented in science and engineering careers.
“This really is a societal issue,” says Barbara Ruel, director of women in engineering and diversity at Rensselaer. “We need to spread the message that women can perform equally as well as men in science, technology, and especially in the engineering fields.”
Ruel has worked to effectively spread that message by recruiting and retaining women students, and by developing engaging programs that help them develop the skills and self-confidence they need to successfully enter and stay in these disciplines.
Ruel oversees the popular “Design Your Future Day.” Established in 1997, the program introduces 11th-grade girls with high aptitude and interest in math and science to a variety of academic degree programs and career paths in engineering, science, architecture, and technology.
More than 120 11th-grade girls from around the Northeast take part in the day’s workshops, led by Rensselaer faculty, staff, and graduate students. Last year, the program featured more than a dozen fun and interactive workshops, including the “Body Bag” in which students learned how scientists and engineers can impact human health and quality of life. The students also participated in the “Engineering at Rensselaer is Sweeeeet!” workshop, where they learned how to assemble a box of candy in the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory, and saw firsthand different manufacturing processes including robotics and automation, plastic injection molding, three-dimensional printing, and water-jet cutting. “Rensselaer recruits 10 to 12 young women annually from this one-day program,” Ruel says.
Each February during National Engineers Week more than 250 Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts take part in “Exploring Engineering Day,” which offers myriad hands-on learning activities.
“Since its inception, the program has increased in both size and diversity,” Ruel says. “This year, children participated in a variety of activities that covered a wide range of disciplines, including electrical, aeronautical, and materials engineering.
When Exploring Engineering Day was first established in 1997, mostly boys participated. Since 2000, participation has doubled and half of the registrants have been girls. Last year, the Scouts participated in activities such as the “Gak,” a lab exercise in which they combined materials to witness chemical reactions and analyze material properties.
“Seeing the creativity and imagination that the kids bring to the activities is inspiring,” says Tara Clancy, environmental engineering major and member of the Society of Women Engineers, one of several student clubs that helped organize the event. “Working with the young students at Exploring Engineering Day also reminds me of why I first became interested in engineering. I love engineering, and events like this are great opportunities to share the fun that I have solving engineering problems with others.”
Ruel believes programs like this are part of Rensselaer’s mission. “It’s our job as higher education institutions to work with industry to help these youngsters learn about emerging technologies and to teach them about what engineers do,” she says. “New technologies create the need for new jobs and job skills. Guidance counselors and parents may not be familiar with cutting-edge careers, new emerging technologies, and the interdisciplinary research that goes on at the best universities.”
A RENSSELAER TRADITION RENEWED
PREFACE, one of the oldest programs, established nearly 30 years ago, is a highly selective, all-expense-paid, two-week residential summer program for talented high school sophomores entering 11th grade. The students take part in lab exercises, discussions, and field trips, and take classes in core disciplines, from electrical engineering and computing to leadership and career development.
“The focus is really on trying to develop a means to not only identify potential applicants for Rensselaer, but to lay a foundation for pursuing careers in the sciences and engineering,” says Dean of Students Mark Smith, who oversees OMSA and served as its director during the 1990s. Smith has been at the forefront of the Institute’s curriculum development for pre-college and pipeline initiatives and has established many corporate and professional contacts for minority students seeking internships, co-ops, and job placement.
In partnership with the New York State Education Department, OMSA also established the Rensselaer Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) in 1986. Through STEP, 150 underrepresented and economically disadvantaged 7th- through 12th-grade students in five area middle and high schools participate in a range of after-school enrichment activities, summer programs, research labs on college campuses and industry, and career development experiences. The same students have the opportunity to attend year after year to advance their skills and knowledge.
“Rensselaer is spearheading an effort to build a national network of K- 12 pipeline partnerships with organizations that are focused on the identification, nurturing, and educational development of women and underrepresented minority groups in order to facilitate their access to higher education in the fields we offer,” says Eddie Ade Knowles, vice president for student life. “And, we are reaching out to our alumni to become active participants in this national effort as mentors and as active recruiters of talented high school students.”
A NEW VISION
“When I was in high school, I had no idea what engineering was,” says Pasquale who, because of her experience in New Visions, stayed a semester ahead in earning her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Rensselaer.
“Through New Visions, I discovered that engineering wasn’t just one discipline,” she adds. “I learned about each type of engineering through soil analysis labs, fiber optic and laser experiments, working with electronics, and other activities. The experience helped me decide that I definitely did want to be an engineer, and what sort of engineering I wanted to study.”
Up to 15 high school seniors are selected for each New Visions class. On weekday mornings during the school year, the students are exposed to labs and coursework, tour local companies, and interact with numerous professionals in various fields of work.
“New Visions gives students the opportunity to gain valuable insight into careers and research. And, as with all Rensselaer’s K-12 pipeline programs, it gives our young people a tremendous opportunity to see a future in technology and science careers they never could have imagined before,” Rubenfeld says. “That’s Rensselaer’s ultimate mission.”
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