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August 1997


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Department Sponsors Pilot Programs To Encourage Women EEs and CpEs



Single-gender programs are one of several strategies being studied by educators interested in encouraging women to pursue careers in electrical and computer engineering. Shown here, high school participants at Tech's all-women computer and technology camp spent a day in July working on computer skills with elementary-school girls.


In an effort to help encourage women to choose careers in computers and engineering, the Department is sponsoring two pilot programs - one at the high school level and one for elementary students - using the Webber Endowment, the Provost's Critical Needs Funds, and an equipment donation from IBM.

The high school venture, called C-Tech2, involved a four-week residential program in July for 26 women, all rising seniors in high school. The women focused on the hardware and software aspects of computers, in addition to mathematics- and engineering-related projects. Activities included programming, computer-aided design, using Internet tools, building mousetrap cars, toothpick bridges, polymers, and ceramics.

The program was organized by the College of Engineering's Office of Minority Engineering Programs for women from across the state. Participants all agreed that the program was valuable, and researchers plan to track participants' college studies and careers. Another camp is planned for next summer.

The elementary school venture involves providing 12 computers to a Blacksburg elementary school for use by all the students during the day and by an after-school all-girls computer club.

"University and business groups across the country need to develop efforts to understand the hesitancy of many women to get involved with electrical and computer engineering," said Department Head Leonard Ferrari.

"This is not only an equity issue, but also an economic one," he said. The high paying jobs in the next couple decades, particularly in the booming northern part of our own state, will be in computer-based fields. Women currently make up 40 percent of the workforce. If women continue to avoid these fields, they will not have access to some of the highest-paying careers, and there may be regional shortages of workers for these fields."

Women have traditionally been a minority in these fields. Nationally, women received about 12 percent of the EE degrees awarded in 1990, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics that were cited in a 1992 National Science Foundation report. This was down from 14 percent in 1988. Women received about 30 percent of the computer science degrees in 1990, down from 37 percent in the mid-1980s.

This downward trend in percentage of women in EE and CS is the reverse of strong upward trends in women's participation in mathematics, biology, physics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and engineering as a whole.

Some studies indicate that experience and confidence with computers is a major factor. For example, a 1995 report of the MIT Department of Electrical and Computer Science stated that the most noticeable results of two surveys of MIT undergraduates were "that women, much more so than men, feel that they have come to MIT less prepared to major in EECS than their peers."

"No one knows for sure what causes the disparity," Ferrari said. "We do know that young girls and high school women don't often get the same experience and confidence with computers as boys of the same age."

The Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Virginia Tech

Last Updated, November 23, 1997
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