MU female engineering students face number of difficulties

Sunday, March 1, 2009 | 7:15 p.m. CST; updated 8:51 a.m. CST, Monday, March 2, 2009

 COLUMBIA — Katie Tepper inherited more than her DNA from her mother. As a former engineer, Tepper’s mother shared her passion for math and science with her daughter.

So when it came time for her to choose a major, it was no surprise where she chose to enroll in engineering. Tepper is one of only 250 female students in the MU College of Engineering. Women make up 13 percent of the student body of 1,921 students.

Like many of the students in a study recently published by an MU professor, Tepper, 20, knows the challenges she faces as being a member of an underrepresented group.

Rose Marra, an associate professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, studied the role of support and confidence in the success and retention of female students in the engineering program.

Her study was published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.

She looked at the attitudes of 196 undergraduate women at universities across the nation. The study was able to directly link the level of confidence in female engineering students to their retention and eventual graduation in the programs.

Students tend to feel more confident when they are working on problems they would see in the real world, Marra found. That translates into a boost that keeps them in the program.

On the other hand, Marra's study found that minority students often felt excluded. The study included 60 ethnic minorities.

“This points to a need to improve feeling included and a feeling they belong,” Marra said.

She became interested in the topic through her own experience as a software engineer. In her teaching career, she said she has seen that accomplishing engineering tasks can be a confidence booster.

Marra hopes universities will look at their current programs and find ways they can improve the retention of students interested in an engineering career.

“We don’t have enough people studying engineering,” Marra said. “We don’t have enough men, women or minorities.”

The MU College of Engineering hopes to accomplish these things with a new laboratory.

Another way women engineers can reach out to their peers is by joining the MU chapter of Society of Women Engineers, of which Tepper is student president.

“I feel very confident that I can succeed in a male-dominated field. I’ve never felt underqualified or not included,” Tepper said. “I think it’s because I’ve always been in SWE and had that support system. We work together to get through it. It builds our confidence.”

The organization has about 60 members in all five areas of engineering. Tepper says they visit rural middle schools and hold Girl Scout engineering days to build the interest of math and science among girls.

Tepper also said women engineering students know that the challenge of being a woman in a man’s field is not going to end upon graduation.

Sarah Hotaling, who serves as the director of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps training systems program at Boeing in St. Louis, confirms those concerns.

“The fact that I was part of an underrepresented group at work was much more apparent than at school, and continues to be today, 20 years later,” Hotaling said.

“In terms of being in a managerial position, I haven’t found my gender to be an issue," she said. "To be sure, I’m certain that there have been men who have worked for me that struggled with that concept at times, but I didn’t find that it got in the way of accomplishing the tasks of the team.”

Both Hotaling and Tepper know what it is like to prove themselves to their colleagues.

“Probably the biggest issue has been, and continues to be, that some people will choose to believe you’ve been promoted into a job because you’re a woman as an affirmative action effort,” Hotaling said.

Marra is pleased with the study, but also hopes to do more of a qualitative data seeking study, where she would get to meet individually with students.

“I’m continuing to study issues surrounding women in engineering and improving engineering education,” she said. “I certainly hope to do another study in the future.”

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Ellis Smith March 2, 2009 | 8:11 a.m.

So, there are 1,921 students in the school? That's small compared to Missouri S&T; however, any U. S. or Canadian engineering school deserves all the help and support it can obtain, both in terms of keeping our profession strong and in the public's interest.

Only 1,921 students!

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