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2012 October 29 - 12:00 am

POV: There’s No Time Like the Present For Women To Major in STEM Fields

There’s No Time Like the Present
For Women To Major in STEM Fields
Adrienne Y. Smith
Dean, School of Engineering Technologies,
Springfield Technical Community College

This might sound surprising, but there are not enough engineers and scientists in the United States right now in order for our country to maintain the lead in the global economy. How is this possible? Our current education system is not producing enough graduates in these fields to fill the need. Womencomprise just over half of the U.S. population, but few pursue a career in these fields.

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What does this mean? It means fewer role models, mentors, and female educators for young women in our classrooms. It means having fewer women in these fields to conduct research. Having more women in these fields increases diversity. Men and women think differently—look at problems differently—adding a different set of lenses through which the problem definition and solving will occur. Think about this: when voice recognition systems were first designed, they were calibrated to men’s voices. Women’s voices were not recognized. Similarly, when the first automobile airbag systems were designed, they were designed according to men’s specifications, not taking into consideration the physical differences between men and women.

Despite efforts to encourage young women to engage in these fields, there is still a huge disparity in the number of men and women who enter and persist in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

My introduction to the world of engineering was via a summer program held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was my high school guidance counselor who saw something in me early on and encouraged me to enroll in the summer program. Prior to this, I had not considered a career in engineering. By spending the summer at UMass, I learned all about the various engineering disciplines and how much fun it was to actually “do” engineering. I learned about the large number of job opportunities in the field and the rewarding salaries. After attending the program, I decided I wanted to go into engineering and went on to become the first African-American woman to graduate from the College of Engineering at Western New England University. This is an accomplishment of which I am still very proud.

I have a passion for educating young women about the engineering field — it’s fun, vibrant, ever-evolving, and extremely lucrative. Having a degree in engineering has afforded me the opportunity to be flexible in my career choices. I have held positions as a manufacturing engineer, a manufacturing engineering manager, a college professor, and, now, I am the dean of engineering technologies at Springfield Technical Community College (Mass.). Contrary to popular belief, I have never been stuck in a cubical simply designing and crunching numbers. The sky is the limit with a degree in engineering. However, looking at recent research data about women who enter these fields, many young women will not consider a career in engineering unless they have someone in their immediate sphere of influence to guide them in this direction. How do we do this? Collaborate. Network. Create partnerships.

Community colleges across the U.S. already are starting to do this, but we also need guidance counselors and high school faculty and administrators to partner with local businesses and community stakeholders in order to help get the word out. At STCC, for example, we’ve already begun putting these wheels in motion. Our campus currently partners with local middle schools to host a robotics camp for each summer – exposing our youth to the opportunities and excitement that comes with this career. This summer, the college will partner with a local high school and launch its first biotechnology career camp for approximately 20 students to promote awareness to career opportunities within the field as well as to help build the future workforce currently in demand by local employers.

Collectively, we need to take a stand, stop talking about the issue and start doing something to make a change. Get involved. If we encourage our young women to migrate towards the STEM fields today, we’re helping to ensure economic stability in our country for the future.

Our community colleges offer a variety of Engineering Technologies and Engineering Transfer programs, which I highly encourage women to consider pursuing. We need to remind these young women that a career in engineering offers a myriad of possibilities—wide and varied employment opportunities, high salary options, and a career with the promise of helping others to improve their quality of life. Being a part of the community college network, we know community colleges are an excellent place to start a career trajectory. Whether our students go directly to the workforce or go on to a four year institution, they receive an excellent education. By choosing to start their education at a community college they save thousands (yes, thousands!) of dollars.

If you know a young woman who has a strength in science and mathematics, or has a passion for physics, remember to tell her about the opportunities available to her. Remind her of the impact she can make by choosing engineering as a career. Mostly, just encourage her — it could be the best decision she’s ever made. It’s

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Q: What is the best way to get young women interested in STEM careers?
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