The Institute - March 2007 - 14

Wo m en i n Eng i n ee ri n g

Real-World Projects
Can Make a Difference
By Robin Peress


he IEEE's Women in
En g i neer i n g ( W IE)
Commit tee and the
Educational Activities
Board (EAB) are teaming up to
help provide universities with
hands-on projects designed to
encourage women to pursue
degrees in electrical engineering and computer science.
The new two-year initiative,
"Increasing the Representation
of Women in the IEEE's Fields
of Interest," is aimed at resolving problems in academia that
many believe have led to a lack
of female engineers. The IEEE
plans to spend US $378 000 on
the program.
Spearheading the initiative
are IEEE Senior Member Amy
Bell, an associate professor of
electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Polytechnic
Institute and State University,
in Blacksburg, and Moshe
Kam, vice president, IEEE Educational Activities.
"Women's underparticipation in electrical and computer
engineering and computer
science worldwide threatens
the competitive vitality of
the workforce and the profession," Bell wrote in describing
the initiative. "It restricts the
employment opportunities of
half the population."
The underrepresentation of
women in electrical engineering and computer science is a
persistent problem that has long
been recognized. In 2004, U.S.
women, for example, earned
fewer than 15 percent of such
degrees, while they earned
46 percent of the bachelor's
degrees awarded that year in
biomedical engineering and
41 percent of the bachelor's
degrees in environmental engineering. Other countries face a
similar gender gap. For exam-


The Institute | March 2007

ple, fewer than 10 percent of
engineering degrees awarded
in Japan, Italy, Spain, and
South Korea went to women.
Overall, women make up
8.5 percent of all engineers in
the United States, according to
statistics compiled by the U.S.
National Science Foundation
and the American Society for
Engineering Education.
Deterrents Several factors,
including a high dropout rate
after freshman year, contribute
to the low number of female
engineers. A large-scale U.S.
study known as the Women's
Experiences in College Engineering project, as well as
other studies conducted at Purdue University, Virginia Tech,
and elsewhere, have uncovered a number of deterrents.
They include a lack of female
role models, the absence of
peer support, and little effort
by faculty to encourage young
women to stick with engineering. On the other hand, women
are more likely to continue their
studies after they're exposed
early on to team-based, handson instruction that focuses
on how engineering can solve
societal problems.
"The conversation about why
women are not doing well in
undergraduate engineering programs has changed," Bell says.
"It's gone from 'What's wrong
with women?' to 'What's wrong
with engineering education?'"
NEW APPROACH The initiative
intends to change how engineering is taught by introducing
practical projects in freshman
classes. It calls on the IEEE to
work with educators to develop
hands-on projects and online
workshops for freshmen.
This month, a group of

engineering-school faculty
will start developing proposals for projects that address
real-world electrical, computer
engineering, and computer science problems whose solutions
can benefit society. The idea is
to first present a problem in a

the EAB are set to promote
them to members and to the
engineering-school community. Educators whose lessons
make it to the IEEE Web site
will receive $5000.
The initiative also calls for
developing online workshops

The third and last part of the
initiative calls for the IEEE to
promote the projects and best
teaching practices at electrical and computer engineering
schools. Instructors who register to use the free teaching aids
and workshops will be asked to
assess them.
No one expects changes
in curricula overnight. "The
first criterion for judging the
initiative's positive impact
will be simply the number of
teaching aids developed," Kam
says. "Another benchmark will
be the number of faculty that
incorporate the projects in their
classroom instruction."

Several factors, including a high dropout
rate after freshman year, contribute to
the low number of female engineers
background lecture along with
at least one solution. That will
be followed by a summary lecture that reviews the problem
and discusses the challenges
and trade-offs involved in its
solution, as well as the solution's impact on society.
A review committee will
approve all proposals for development. Individual lessons are
to be turned into online teaching aids and posted on the
IEEE Web site by November.
Both the WIE Committee and

that showcase the best teaching practices found in electrical
and computer engineering and
computer science classrooms.
The practices will be reviewed
and selected by the same IEEE
committee. The goal is to
develop educational strategies
that focus on the learner rather
than on just the concept being
taught, an approach known as
learner-centered teaching. Other
educational strategies include
those focused on students working on team projects.

"My hope is that in the
end we will see substantial
increases in women engineers," Bell says. "But at the
very least we will create highquality materials, and anyone
who uses them will benefit. It
can only be a good thing."
Eventually, the program
should also help establish
equity and opportunity in
engineering's management
ranks, Kam says, adding,
"When we help women, we
help men as well."


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