Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Schools Seek More Female Engineering Majors

ATLANTA, Georgia (AP) -- Georgia Tech freshman Val Uyemura caught a glimpse of her future even before she started classes in electrical engineering.

"When I went to orientation, they split us up by major and I was the only woman," Uyemura said.

Uyemura, 18, whose parents have engineering degrees, is one of 87 women out of 855 engineering majors enrolled at the school. Nationally, women make up only about one-fifth of students in engineering programs.

Experts argue that if the United States is to remain competitive with other countries in the engineering field, it will have to find better ways to encourage women to join the profession.

"One of the reasons has to do with the negative stereotype in engineering -- the nerd drinking Cokes and eating Twinkies until 3 in the morning," said William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering. "The really important attribute of an engineer is creativity. Somehow that's not what high school girls are hearing about."

The U.S. lags behind countries such as China and India in producing engineers and scientists out of college each year, and women and minorities are key to improving that standing, Wolf said. They bring the diverse perspectives needed for the innovation that can set the U.S. apart, he said.

A 2003 study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Women and Gender found that females choose other careers because they don't see engineering as a way to help others. The study, conducted over 17 years, followed Michigan students from 6th grade through college and beyond.

Georgia Tech offers annual engineering camps for middle- and high-school girls, and the university's students and alumni regularly visit schools to talk to science and math classes. A mentoring program also connects female engineering majors in their third and fourth years with freshmen who want to major in engineering.

Still, female enrollment hasn't changed much at the Atlanta university in the last decade, and programs elsewhere meant to encourage women to join the field have generally proven ineffective.

Women received 18 percent of the 78,200 engineering degrees given out in 2003-04, the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Education. That's the same percentage as in 1998 and only slightly more than the 16 percent in 1996.

Mahera Philobos, director of Georgia Tech's Women in Engineering program and a civil and environmental engineering professor, said she's frustrated by the stagnant female enrollment but that more women have recently been enrolling in areas like biomedical and industrial engineering -- fields where many feel they can contribute to the world, she said.

Manhattan Associates, an Atlanta-based company that hires industrial engineers to work as consultants for clients, received more female applicants this year than in years past, said Diane Tuccito, the firm's vice president for global human resources. But most applicants are still white males, she said.

"We want to have a diverse organization," Tuccito said. "You get a better collaboration."

From CNN. Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.

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