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Female students prove engineering not just 'man's world'

May 05, 2014 3:45PM

Female students prove engineering not just 'man's world'
Jennifer Bradley (left) and Rachel Meyer, both members of the Society of Women Engineers student group, work on a Formula-style race engine. Bradley is a senior from Lancaster, Pa. Meyer is a freshman from Spring Hill, Kan.

For a young Jennifer Bradley, watching the popular TV show MacGyver wasn’t quite enough.

“I needed to understand MacGyver,” she said. “I couldn’t just sit there and enjoy the show. It was more than that. I was obsessed with MacGyver. I wanted to be MacGyver.”

The fictional troubleshooter spoke to Bradley’s innate desire to solve problems, to figure out how things work.

“That’s the kind of stuff that gets me going,” said Bradley, now a manufacturing engineering technology major at Pittsburg State. “I love thinking about how things work, how things were designed to work. I want to get my hands on things and tackle problems head-on.”

Bradley, a member of the Society of Women Engineers student group at Pitt State, said she believes there are many more women in the world who share those interests but are reluctant to turn them into a career. National statistics agree, as a recent report by the American Society for Engineering Education show that women account for just 18 percent of engineering degrees nationwide.

A national push to get more women in engineering has been taking place for several years, said Rebeca Book, assistant professor in Pitt State’s Department of Engineering Technology.

“A lot of females don’t consider engineering as a career,” Book said. “They are either not aware of it, or they don’t feel comfortable pursuing the degree. Many still feel that it’s a man’s world. We need to change that. We need women to know that they are just as equipped to be engineers as their male counterparts.”

Earlier this year, Book, Bradley other representatives from Pittsburg State attended the fourth annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day (IGED) in Kansas City. Hosted by the Kansas City Section of the Society of Women Engineers, the event introduces female high school students to a variety of engineering-related concepts and activities.

One of the key organizers of the event is Alyssa Zimmerman, a 2012 engineering technology graduate of Pitt State who now works as an engineer at Honeywell.

“The purpose for the event is the expose these young high school students to the field of engineering and give them a taste of what engineers do,” Zimmerman said. “Our main objectives are to try to spark an interest in engineering and give them the confidence that they can pursue it as a career.”

Bradley spoke at the conference as a member of the college panel, and she said her message was simple.

“There were so many young girls there, and we wanted to leave them with the belief that they can do this,” she said. “Engineering is a complicated, difficult field, and a lot of people have certain fears about it. But whether you are a male or a female, you can do it if you put your mind and heart into it.

She admits, however, that overcoming those fears can be easier said than done.

“Many women struggle with something that is known as Imposter Syndrome,” she said. “They don’t start out with the confidence that they can become engineers, and even when they find success, they have a hard time believing it’s because they truly can do this.

“It’s a serious mental and emotional journey, and women can easily become deterred when going for an engineering degree,” she said. “If they don’t go into it believing they can be successful, the first sign of failure is often enough to make them back down or give up.”

Book said many female students believe they have to be “rocket scientists” to earn an engineering degree.

“That’s just not the case,” Book said. “You certainly have to be able to comprehend some complicated subjects and concepts, but you don’t have to be an A+ student in every facet of the field. You don’t have to be an absolute math wizard to be an engineer, but a lot of students come into it thinking that you do.”

Book and Bradley agree that those misconceptions about the field keep many women from pursuing an engineering degree. The remedy, Bradley said, is early exposure.

“The earlier we can introduce students to engineering, the better,” she said. “We need to remove those misconceptions before they become mental obstacles for women thinking about engineering. Early exposure is an essential component to getting more women in the field.”

Book said she is confident that the number of women in the engineering field will increase with more awareness and encouragement.

“I definitely think we’ll see more and more women go into engineering,” she said. “As they become more aware and informed about the industry, they’ll become more comfortable and willing to pursue it as a career.”

An increase in the number of female engineering and technology-related faculty members also will help boost the number of female students, Book said.

“Having female faculty members shows young women that it’s not just a man’s world,” she said. “We’ve done a great job at Pittsburg State of adding more women to the College of Technology faculty. Fourteen years ago, when I came to Pitt State, there were three women on the faculty. Now there are nine.”

Book said she’s excited to see the national push for more women in engineering, and she’s anxious to see the results.

“There is a movement right now to get more women in the field, and I think it’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “I think we’ll continue to see the number of women in the field go up and up.”

©2014 Pittsburg State University