ME professor Grace O'Connell and Girls in Engineering participants

Mechanical engineering professor Grace O'Connell works with Girls in Engineering participants. (Matt Beardsley photo)

More women in engineering - what's working?

Increasing the representation of women in engineering is a shared pursuit among educators and the business sector nationwide. Here in Berkeley Engineering, we are moving beyond good intentions with proven strategies for attracting more women to the field, sustaining their interest and fostering their leadership.

Drawing from numerous studies and our own experience, we know that this challenge must be met with a comprehensive approach, one that creates a pipeline beginning with K–12 and continues through college, graduate school and professional life. Along this pipeline, we are seeing tangible improvements with four strategies in particular:

  1. Focus on middle school. This is the time when girls start to lose interest in math, science and technology. We have taken our successful Girls in Engineering pilot program from last summer and doubled the enrollment for 2015. Sixty local 5th, 6th and 7th graders will spend a week on campus engaged in hands-on design projects, from building robotic origami bugs and digital piñatas to experimenting with Jell-O optics, bone mechanics and the science of food. Led by EECS professor Claire Tomlin with help from Annie Averitt of our fund development team, women faculty, graduate students and high school students serve as instructors, role models and mentors. We have also designed a longitudinal study to assess the program’s impact.
  2. Make the work more relevant to societal needs. As Blum Center innovation director and bioengineer Lina Nilsson writes in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “If the content of the work itself is made more societally meaningful, women will enroll in droves.” In our new Ph.D. minor in development engineering, co-led by ME professor Alice Agogino, half of the students are women. Focusing on solutions for resource-poor communities, our students are designing affordable systems for clean drinking water, inventing diagnostics for tropical diseases and enabling local manufacturing in remote regions.
  3. Offer more hands-on design experiences. Women engineers also seek out opportunities to use creativity, ideation and iteration in solving engineering problems, especially as members of interdisciplinary teams diversified by different mindsets. When Jacobs Hall, home of our Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, opens for fall 2015, we will be able to accommodate hundreds of such students each year in state-of-the-art labs for rapid prototyping, digital fabrication and more.
  4. Strengthen student networks. I cannot say enough about our Society of Women Engineers student chapter and their impressive track record of success in attracting and retaining women students. Each year, SWE hosts an Overnight Host Program for incoming women students. This community-building experience provides a network lasting throughout the college years and beyond. In a short clip about this year’s program, one new student speaks of the “empowering, diverse and extremely supportive” community of women engineers she has met here at Berkeley.

These examples offer some illustration of the wide-ranging initiatives and pilot programs we are bringing together in a cohesive pipeline to boost the number of women in engineering. I look forward to reporting on further progress, and I welcome your comments at dean_sastry@berkeley.edu.

S. Shankar Sastry
Dean and Carlson Professor of Engineering