An early introduction to engineering brings girls back for more

Career paths aren't always set in stone by junior high, or even high school, but for many girls that age, opportunities dwindle rapidly as they drop out of advanced math and science classes. Not good news for college engineering and science programs or the engineering and science professions.

According to Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children, a 1998 report from the American Association of University Women, fewer girls than boys take advanced math and science courses in high school and those gaps persist throughout college and beyond.

The good news is that Kettering University has found a way to help keep girls interested in the fields of math, science and technology throughout junior high and high school, and even into college. Kettering lets them roll up their sleeves for hands-on experiences exploring engineering and science careers and an introduction to college life.

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"The way our pre-college programs are organized responds to specific things that we know keep girls interested in science, math and technology," said Betsy Homsher, director of Women Student Affairs at Kettering. "We know, for example, that women are much more likely to choose bio-engineering over other engineering specialties because it allows them to have an impact on people's lives. There is a large body of research that shows women are drawn to bio-engineering," she said.

"Bio-engineering is also the fastest growing segment of the engineering disciplines," said Homsher. "It is a lot more inclusive than other forms of engineering - it can be anything from basic science like cell biology or chemistry to the mechanics of building artificial limbs," she said.

In addition, the Kettering programs focus on how to retain women students once they enroll. That might include mentoring by upperclassmen, scholarship availability, professional role models and a sense of belonging.

"Women feel a need for community, programs like the ones at Kettering supporting women in engineering," said Homsher, in reference to the Women's Resource Center on campus and her newly created position as director of Women Student Affairs.

All of these efforts pay off. A large number of girls participating in Kettering's pre-college programs wind up matriculating at the university. Those programs include: Kamp Kettering for girls in junior high, providing an overview of the engineering field;2 1st Century Woman for girls in high school, expanding on the Kamp Kettering program; Academically Interested Minorities (AIM) for high school junior girls and boys, a six-week residential program where students attend classes and live in the residence hall; and Lives Improve Through Engineering (LITE) for high school junior girls, a two-week residential program focused on Bio-engineering and science.

On average, about 40 percent of girls who participate in either Kamp Kettering or 21st Century Woman matriculate at Kettering yearly. Anywhere between 50 and 60 percent of students who participate in AIM matriculate, and of the 31 high school juniors who participated in the pilot LITE program in 2002, 30 percent will matriculate at Kettering in the fall of 2003.

"We competed with schools like Harvard, MIT and Cornell to recruit these women to come here," Homsher said of the LITE program. "This is an extremely competitive arena and these are a very talented, elite group of female students," she added.

Three of those students, Essence Mastin-Harrison, Susan Ng and Dawn Dreyer, are representative of the young women who "graduate" from a Kettering pre-college program and attend Kettering.

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Mastin-Harrison, a sophomore from Flint, attended two Kettering pre-college programs, Kamp Kettering and AIM. "I saw Kamp Kettering advertised in the newspaper and thought it looked interesting. I really wasn't all that interested in math and science at that point, but once I saw what you could do with it I GOT interested," she said. "After Kamp Kettering I had my heart set on coming to Kettering. I decided if I couldn't attend Kettering I didn't want to study engineering."

At a Kamp Kettering reunion, part of the follow-up programming implemented to keep girls involved in math and science, she learned about the AIM program. AIM participants can apply to the university for free at the end of their AIM session. Mastin-Harrison took advantage of the opportunity. "When I got accepted at Kettering I didn't even bother to apply anywhere else," she said.

Now studying Process Engineering, Mastin-Harrison is putting to use the lesson of women mentoring women she learned in the pre-college programs. She has recruited younger relatives to attend Kamp Kettering and is a Kagle Mentor (a program where a Kettering student mentors a Flint-area high school student throughout high school and encourages them to attend college).

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Susan Ng, a senior from Flint, majoring in Mechanical Engineering, also values the introduction to Engineering and Kettering she received through two Kettering pre-college programs, the 21st Century Woman program and AIM.

"I would encourage all students to participate in a pre-college program," she said, "because you get exposed to the campus environment, the faculty and the current students." Ng feels pre-college programs are also a great way for students to start building a network of friends and contacts. "I still keep in contact with the people I met in the 21st Century Woman and AIM programs," she said, "one of the girls I was in 21st Century Woman with in 1998 was my roommate during my last work term."

Both programs contributed to Ng's desire to pursue engineering in college and to attend Kettering. "In high school I didn't know what college to go to, or what I wanted to major in," said Ng, "the pre-college programs really helped me decide. Females are in the minority in engineering schools. These programs help to open doors of opportunity for young women."

After getting a feel for engineering and what kind of careers were available during 21st Century Woman, AIM gave Ng a taste of real college life. "AIM let me know what would be expected of me and what kind of work load I would be faced with."

Introducing others to Kettering is a big part of Ng's college experience. In addition to membership in the Residence Hall Association and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Ng is involved in a variety of programs offered through the Kettering Admissions Office. She has volunteered for Discover Kettering, Scholarship Weekend and the Professional Co-op Conferences, and during her school term is a campus tour guide.

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Dawn Dreyer, a senior from Grand Blanc, echoes both Mastin-Harrison and Ng, citing her participation in 21st Century Woman as instrumental in applying to Kettering. "I became interested in engineering in high school by accident," said Dreyer, "I had to fill an elective and chose Engineering Drafting."

She continued to take drafting course and participated in competitions. Since both her father and step-father sponsor Kettering co-op students, a Kettering pre-college program seemed a logical step. "I wanted to get a feel if engineering was a field I would be interested in for the long term," Dreyer said.

The 21st Century Woman program not only cemented her decision about an Engineering career, but it helped her decide to apply to Kettering as well. "I was much more comfortable with my decision to continue my Engineering education at Kettering," she said. "It was great to go beyond just taking a tour of the buildings. I was able to talk to some of the professors and sample some of the classes being offered."

As for the all-female program, Dreyer said that because engineering is a male dominated field it was encouraging to see "plenty of other females interested in the Engineering profession."

That visibility, along with role models, and a girl-friendly environment are the keys to success for any college engineering program seeking to recruit women students, according to Homsher.

For example, the LITE program showcases faculty, women and men, who are juggling family and an engineering career to show young women that it is not an either/or situation. And, many activities in the pre-college programs utilize the learning style of girls - cooperative group problem solving.

Whether or not the girls and young women who will be attending Kettering pre-college programs this summer realize the effort behind their introduction to engineering, their older "sisters" know that it made all the difference for them. And many of them will be on hand to mentor, and explain and give insider tips on engineering and college life in general, lighting the way and making engineering more accessible to all girls.

Written by Dawn Hibbard
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