Busting National Trends
U of I’s Society of Women Engineers Promotes the Field to Younger Generations
National trends related to women in engineering are grim — far fewer women are entering the profession than men; women engineers hold significantly fewer senior level and executive positions in the field; and women leave the occupation at much higher rates.
But a group of women engineering students at the University of Idaho is trying to bust these statistics.
The students are part of U of I’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), a nationwide organization that performs K-12 and college outreach, along with professional development in the workforce to help women achieve their full potential in careers as engineers and leaders. SWE members have the chance to network with other women in the field, attend leadership conferences, learn about internship opportunities and go on industry tours.
Maddie Curtright, a sophomore from Boise majoring in computer science, is president of U of I-SWE. She sees the organization as a place to have shared experiences with other women students in the field.
“It’s hard having no experience programming and being surrounded by a lot of guys who have been programming since they were 10,” Curtright said. “You kind of feel like you don’t belong. But when you get with other girls who have been in the same or similar place, it’s really comforting to know they’re succeeding, so you can too.”
On Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, U of I-SWE will work to inspire a younger generation of potential innovators during U of I’s Women in Engineering Day, when up to 80 female high school students from Idaho and Washington visit U of I to learn more about the discipline.
U of I-SWE’s outreach chair, Emily Kaschmitter from Grangeville, is a sophomore majoring in biological engineering with plans to minor in pre-health and Asian studies. She considers the event a way to help young women “see themselves” in the profession.
“I think it’s really important to show these girls that even though there’s not too many of us, we’re all in this together and we’re going to help them get better,” she said. “I really want them to be inspired to push themselves to be ambitious.”
Each year, U of I-SWE members at Women in Engineering Day present an engineering challenge to high school participants interested in exploring the application of math and science. In the past, challenges have tested participants’ abilities in civil and mechanical engineering with more traditional activities. Participants built bridges, constructed balloon-powered cars, and created a payload that carried and protected an egg during a drop meant to simulate a space launch.
This year, participants will experience a different side of engineering. Kaschmitter wants them to build something that “will make the world better,” and in line with her field of study, positively impact humans’ biological systems.
Kaschmitter said that when some “girls think about engineering, they think about building structures and large machinery and getting dirty,” which she knows “some girls do enjoy.”
“But to a lot of other girls, like myself,” she said, “that’s not necessarily what we want to do. And there are so many other things you can do with an engineering degree.”
U of I-SWE members crafted a challenge that will address people living in poverty who don’t have access to clean water. Participants will be split into groups, given basic instructions on strategies for construction of a water filtration system, have time to draw a design, and then “purchase” materials provided by U of I-SWE.
Upon completion of the project, participants will be judged on teamwork, creativity, management of their budget, and overall workability of the device.
“The point is to make the mechanism cost effective and efficient,” Kaschmitter said. “We’re going to throw in some things that you could use but aren’t as useful to the system, which they need to be able to figure out.”
Women in Engineering Day attendees also get to tour various departments in the College of Engineering, hear from faculty members about their research and learn what opportunities undergraduate engineering students have to be involved in hands-on research.
“I’m looking forward to meeting the girls and hopefully seeing them next year at U of I-SWE meetings,” Curtright said. “I want to show them that engineering is cool and that they can do it, they can make it.”