In 2016, Women in Science Project helps graduate more women than men undergraduates majoring in engineering.
The year was 1989. In the fall of that year, Carol Muller, then Associate Dean of Administration at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering, proudly witnessed another woman—chemistry professor Karen Wetterhahn—named as Associate Dean of the Sciences—a highly visible and influential role at Dartmouth. Like Muller, Wetterhahn embraced the mission to advance gender equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Within a year, they worked hard to develop high-level support to create the Women in Science Project (WISP) at Dartmouth. The project, an organizational recipient of the 1996 inaugural Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM), was a logical response to several studies at the time about women and STEM studies, including one led by A. Christopher Strenta. The study found that women at highly selective schools were opting out of the sciences at higher rates than men—but not because they were not as smart. The survey found women considered their mathematics and science classes uninviting, professors disengaged and male classmates overly competitive. (A 2011 study of a single-sex STEM program, similar to WISP, shows such programs hold “benefits” of “reducing exposure to gender bias and feelings of alienation often reported in traditional co-educational environments.”)
Twenty-five years later, what started as an institutional response to the dearth of women in engineering has become a national model for higher education programs that encourage and support the success of women in STEM.
“We put our heads together, and it was like karma,” said Muller. “We had support from our respective deans, as well as other leaders at Dartmouth, and that institutional support was a real strength.”
Within the first five years of WISP’s founding, Dartmouth saw its undergraduate women majoring in engineering rise from 12 percent to about 25 percent. In recent years, nearly 40 percent of Dartmouth’s undergraduate degrees in engineering have been earned by women. This year, the school made history by graduating more women than men with undergraduate degrees in engineering—an accomplishment that brought the school recognition in a recent USA Today article.
The right mix
Muller and Kathy Scott Weaver, assistant director for undergraduate advising and research at Dartmouth, concur that WISP’s success is attributed to its mix of dedicated faculty, early hands-on laboratory work, role models and peer-to-peer mentoring. The combination has produced dramatic results.
“We have benefited from our years of experience in getting it right from the beginning,” says Weaver, who has managed WISP programs since the mid-1990s.
WISP started in Thayer School of Engineering, but Weaver says administrative oversight of the program transferred in 2009 to Dartmouth’s Dean of Faculty, which gave women in the program closer ties with faculty throughout the college. “This worked well for WISP because faculty mentors are so crucial to making our Project work. Our faculty have been incredibly supportive. We have several faculty mentoring first-year women for the past 20 years.”
The long-term, dedicated faculty who mentor first-year undergraduate women by engaging them in lab research is a critical factor for WISP’s success, explains Weaver. “Most institutions, historically, have given undergraduate research opportunities to upper-level students or people who have already declared a major or have already shown promise. But, our program demonstrates that engaging women in STEM lab work early in their academic careers can really make a difference. “
“When it works, sometimes they stay in the lab for four years. Sometimes they realize it’s not for them. The way our application process works gives students the opportunity to review the slate of research projects and reach out to faculty before making their decision. There’s a deliberate application process in which students speak with professors about the research they’re doing and learn what the lab requirements are. Some students say it’s too much, spending six hours in a lab doing research. Some might opt to go into another STEM field. There are all sorts of possible outcomes that can happen.”
The evolution of mentoring
Weaver has witnessed many changes throughout WISP's 25-year history. Reflecting on the program's changes she says students have been the variable in the equation.
“Mentoring is probably always evolving. I have been here 20 years and certainly students have changed since then. When I first got here, they weren’t always looking at their phones when they were walking to classes. The fact that we’re now inundated with online data and social media, means that, in some ways, personal mentoring contact becomes more important than ever.”
Weaver says the personal mentoring that occurs—whether it’s between faculty and students or between students and their peers—helps form really strong bonds that contribute to continued viability and success of the program. Muller believes the program demonstrates the power of thoughtful strategy to achieve institutional purpose.
The WISP story shows that institutions should recognize the role they can play in either encouraging or discouraging who majors in certain subjects. Muller suggests the future of STEM mentoring will recognize the value of pairing the knowledge and skill sets of social scientists with science, mathematics and engineering faculty. “I think that’s when you get really impactful programs.”
WISP is one of several PAESMEM organizational honorees that focus on women. To see a complete list, go to the Awards page at paesmem.net. A few include:
The Institute for Women's Health Research at Northwestern University created the Women's Health Science Program for High School Girls and Beyond (WHSP) to prepare and empower a diverse population of high school girls to successfully become the next generation of women leaders in science. The WHSP strategy connects high schools in Chicago with local universities to provide female students with the opportunity to work with university scientists and interact with university students —an active engagement, which results in 100 percent of the program's alumnae graduating from high school and attending college, 80 percent of them in science fields.
The Women in Engineering Program (WEP) at Pennsylvania State University involves women participants across a broad range of points in career development. Twenty-five percent of participants are women of color. WEP has identified barriers to women in academic engineering programs and strategies/methods to overcome them. Women in engineering are retained at a high rate (60-70 percent at the end of sophomore year). WEP provides mentors for women early in their collegiate experience. The program involves a variety of activities, including one-on-one mentoring and team leadership experiences.
In 1989, WiSE (formerly Women in Engineering (WIE) served 50 women; today it serves over 1,300 students a year on the University of Washington campus and over 3,000 students off campus by providing mentoring activities aimed at increasing the number of women in science and engineering. Between 1990 and 1997, the WiSE program has increased retention rates among undergraduate women from 50 percent to 74 percent. WiSE research on mentoring has also produced a nationally-disseminated cross-gender, cross-racial curriculum for training mentors and mentees in science and engineering.
Advancing Women in STEM Academia
Dr. Jessie DeAro, Program Officer, NSF ADVANCE
Photo Credit: NSF Women who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in U.S. colleges and universities are a wellspring of potential mentors and role models for younger women on their STEM career journeys. Encouraging them to become tenured faculty, administrators and future mentors is the impetus behind the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) institutional grant program, ADVANCE: Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic and STEM Careers (ADVANCE).
Dr. Jessie DeAro, ADVANCE program officer, says NSF seeks to support organizational change to improve gender equity in STEM as part of a multifaceted approach to increasing the diversity of the nation’s STEM workforce. Since its creation in 2001, ADVANCE has awarded more than $130 million in grants to community colleges, research institutions and non-profit organizations.
An important goal of the program, DeAro says, is knowledge transfer and awareness. “There are increasing numbers of women earning Ph.D.s in the science and engineering fields, but that is not translating into increasing numbers of women going into academic careers in science and engineering at the rate you would expect,” says DeAro.
The ADVANCE program has invested in the development of strategies to address systemic issues that impact the recruitment, retention and advancement of women in STEM academia, according to DeAro.
“Even though [the program has] been around 15 years, we’ve funded less than two percent of the non-profit institutions of higher education in the country to undertake systemic change to enhance gender equity in STEM academic careers. So, when we talk about outcomes for the ADVANCE program, we’re talking about the knowledge-building we’ve been able to do, the models that have been developed and the spreading of those best practices to other institutions.”
DeAro says that colleges and universities that want to increase gender equity in STEM can examine key policy and structural areas of their institutions, such as:
- Creating accountability and training mechanisms for search, tenure and promotion committees and establishing offices for faculty support and diversity;
- Ensuring consistent and transparent tenure and promotion policies within departments;
- Mitigating negative implicit biases toward women in STEM through training and clear policies; and
- Collecting, reporting and using data in decision making on faculty searches, hires, tenure and promotion.
Colleges and universities could adapt the lessons learned from the institutions ADVANCE has previously funded. A recently published website called Strategies for Effecting Gender Equity and Institutional Change provides an overview of the many strategies that ADVANCE institutional transformation grantees have developed and implemented.
DeAro says a key motivator for creation of the ADVANCE program is to foster a steady stream of faculty women in STEM who can serve as teachers, mentors and role models for future undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. She says ensuring more women faculty in STEM plays a critical role in keeping the STEM “pipeline” reflective of the U.S. population.