Fitting females in STEM

by Gabrielle DiBenedetto

It is Thursday morning when UW-Madison junior Christina Onwualu deboards the city bus and walks up to Engineering Hall for her statics course. When she opens the door to the lecture hall, she glances around and sees 200 other students, but no one looks like her. This is largely because Onwualu is one of only a handful of girls in the course.

“It’s really intimidating,” Owualu said. “Especially when it’s the first day of class and people will just stare at you because it’s so unusual to them.”

Fifty-one percent of undergraduate students at UW-Madison are women but only make up 30 percent of students in the College of Engineering. This gender composition has led students and professors to feel as if they could box out female students.

“Friends have told me that their professors have said, ‘You’re not going to pick up (the material) as fast because you’re a girl,” Onwualu said. “They think I’m really dumb because I’m a girl.”

Photo Courtesy of UW Photo Library

Student studying on UW campus. (UW Photo Library)

This is new to Onwualu and many other female students because they don’t experience this discrimination in high school or other courses on campus. So why is the College of Engineering different?

Ann Haase-Kehl, the program coordinator for the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) learning community explained how female students drop out of the College of Engineering quicker than male students, even though their grade point averages are higher at the time of dropping.

Onwualu said that when there’s group work, lots of microaggressions take place that make her feel unwelcome or disregarded.

“Over time if you’re not really aware of this, it can really wear at your sense of belonging,” Haase-Kehl said. “It’s all part of implicit bias, but if we know that it exists then we can counteract it.”

This is what Haase-Kehl hopes to do through WISE, a small community that hosts programming for female students in STEM majors or interested in the field.

The program and staff are sponsored through a grant by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), College of Engineering and the College of Letters and Sciences.

WISE is currently housed on the second floor of Sellery Hall where students can live, study and network with professors together. The learning community will move to Elizabeth Waters Hall next year to be more attractive to upperclassmen.

Members of WISE are mostly freshman as it is a great way to meet other students when initially setting foot on campus; however, it is open to students of any academic standing.

“It’s about having built in companions who are OK with being nerdy about STEM,” Haase-Kehl said.

WISE assigns students with an upperclassman mentor who has also experienced WISE programming. The upperclassmen help younger students navigate the campus, offer  advice and tutoring for classes and also serve as a support system.

In the past, WISE students have had the opportunity to meet personally with recruiters and employees at EPIC and professors and chairs for a range engineering, science and technology majors.

“Students may feel intimidated by being the only girl in their large lecture hall but sitting next their professor at the dinner table is a different situation,” Haase-Kehl said.

Emilie Wille, a UW-Madison majoring in chemical engineering, explained that hearing about the lives and research of faculty members has helped her learn what a career in science looks like, what possible paths are and how UW-Madison’s research labs work.

“WISE has given me a network of girls I can rely on,” Wille said. “It’s created a comfortable and close environment away from home, which has been vital to my first semester on campus.”

Biomedical Engineering Professor Kristyn Masters, faculty director for the community, says that WISE is about keeping interested students engaged in STEM.

“I think everyone goes through a period of doubting themselves,” UW-Madison Industrial Engineering Professor Vicki Bier said. “But it’s during that period that their experiences are extremely influential.”

Bier credits this disinterest to society’s stereotypes. She says most stereotypes for what makes a good engineer are opposite to what makes a successful woman.

“Around seventh grade we’ve seen women become disinterested in STEM,” Masters said. “The problem is that women don’t feel like they’re cutting it. They don’t receive any external support and there are not role models that look like them.”

Role models play a crucial part when picking a major of envisioning a career. If students are unable to see other people like them succeed, then it’s difficult to envision themselves succeeding.

“If girls don’t see any females in their family or on the news that’s an engineer, how could you even think about pursuing it?” asked Haase-Kehl.

According to a study, female students that walked by a wall in the Chemistry Building that featured several photos of successful male chemists did worse on the exam than male students. The wall of photos suggested to female students that they were unlike anyone in the department and didn’t belong, Sarah Miller said.

Similar results occurred in a study where African- American students were asked to select their race on an answer key prior to starting an exam.They did worse than African American students who were not asked to choose their race.

“It’s setting off a signal in their mind that makes them recognize there must be a difference between them and other students,” Miller.

But it’s also about being about to envision themselves as engineers or successful in STEM fields.

Harvey Mudd, a prestigious engineering school in California, expanded their female enrollment in a big way by making their freshman year course more engaging. They advertised an introductory computer science course as what it could help students do such as ‘solving social problems’ opposed to just ‘C++ and Java programming.’

Bier said that recognizing these differences in how female students are treated and envision themselves in STEM fields has helped her to better teach female students. When assigning group work, Bier will assign teams where female students are not by themselves with all other males students so there is less of a dynamic where the male students feel pressure to take control.

“Every compliment feels like a double-edged sword,” Onwaulu said. “But ultimately I feel empowered by what I do and I know it’ll all pay off — someday.”

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