Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Lois Trautvetter
Photo by Andrew Campbell

Assistant professor Lois Trautvetter found that a positive learning community supports the academic growth of female scientists. She studied how to increase the number of female and underrepresented students in engineering programs.

Adding Women to the Engineering Equation

By Julianne Beck
Adding Women to the Engineering Equation

If she had looked into a crystal ball on her first day of college, Lois Trautvetter may not have believed the academic transformation ahead. As a freshman, she was planning to major in English and work toward law school. However, a faculty mentorship and scholarship program redirected her to a degree in chemistry. “Doing a yearlong gas chromatography project with a particular faculty member really turned me on to chemistry,” says Trautvetter, now the director of the Higher Education Administration and Policy Program and an assistant professor at SESP.

She credits the nurturing culture of her college and working closely with faculty and other female science students as the reasons for her shift into a science discipline. After college, Trautvetter went on to earn a master’s degree in chemical engineering while working in the coatings and resins industry.

Today she is busy sharing her research on how to help more female students make a similar transition. “Science disciplines don’t always make it on their radar,” she observes. Her research documents that experiences like her own create a positive learning community that supports the academic growth of female scientists.

Wanted: Female Engineers

In particular, Trautvetter is focused on increasing the number of female and historically underrepresented engineering students at undergraduate institutions nationwide. Her goal is to diversify the engineering workforce, which is just 19 percent female, according to the National Science Foundation.

She worked with a research team of higher education and engineering faculty and graduate students from four universities to identify six engineering schools with above-average records for recruiting and retaining female engineering students. The researchers were also looking for schools with a focus on certain learning outcomes, such as problem solving, design, contextual competence and interdisciplinary skills. (Northwestern was not a participating institution.)

According to Trautvetter, the research team decided to explore these six engineering programs to find out whether they could pinpoint the practices, recruitment efforts and programs that could be helpful to other institutions. Their project, called “Prototyping the Engineer for 2020,” focused on three dimensions that influence the student learning experience — the organizational context, the peer environment and the individual student experience.

The research took its inspiration from a National Academy of Engineering report that describes the attributes and skills needed for engineers to maintain U.S. technological and economic competitiveness. “The goals of our research were to analyze … features that support engineering education while paying particular attention to the educational practices and programs that foster the success of women and underrepresented minority students,” she explains.

Indeed, young women like Megan Chung, an engineering student at Northwestern, are excited to make a difference in the engineering field. “I think the way that women and men make decisions is very different,” she says. “It’s really important to understand both sides and think how we can use both perspectives to improve our products and our team dynamic.”

What Works With Women

By interviewing faculty, administrators and students as well as observing classes, Trautvetter and her colleagues uncovered key social and academic factors that could dramatically increase the number of female and underrepresented engineering students in coming years. Some of these practices include flexible and strategic admissions policies, “high-touch efforts,” outreach programs, support services during early undergraduate years, strong faculty-student interaction, high support for organizations and activities, learning and living communities, and a supportive campus climate.

A strong first step toward increasing diversity in the field occurs long before college, Trautvetter found. Students who were exposed to engineering through special outreach programs in middle school and high school saw the field as a realistic option for them. “All of these outreach programs were about breaking the stereotype of being an engineer and providing the skills to be successful,” Trautvetter says. Girls had time to prepare for study at the college level through academic, personal and social experiences. Several of the universities Trautvetter studied hosted such programs and took other steps to recruit more females into their programs.

Promoting engineering in a way that appeals to females is critical. The study found that successful recruitment strategies included frequent personal contact with prospective students, specially designed promotional materials, and the presence of student organizations in both the recruiting process and the college experience.

Environment engineering major Christy Lewis appreciated these factors in Northwestern’s environment. “Northwestern attracted me because it seemed like everyone was involved in a lot of different activities,” says Lewis. Although she applied to Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, she transferred to McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science before her first day of class — and never looked back.

Campus Programs With Appeal

Institutional offerings of special interest and support programs, as well as curricula, are key to retaining female engineering students, especially in the first two years. Particularly effective are those that allow female students to help make the world a better place. For example, Lewis and Chung both participated in Design for America, an extracurricular program at Northwestern designed to do just that. Design for America students work in teams to create a product over a six-week period. “I think it’s helpful to be able to interact with people and form team dynamics,” says Lewis.

The program helped Chung to develop a sense of purpose in her work. Her experience on a team that designed a hand-washing device for use in hospitals contributed to her decision to specialize in mechanical engineering, where she felt she could pursue her interest in “creating devices that help people.”

Along with hands-on opportunities and the availability of group projects, Trautvetter documented that support services and undergraduate research opportunities with faculty and graduate students were impactful. Lewis says she has always used her professors’ office hours to help her perform at a high level. As a work-study student, she has also found a mentor in a graduate student she assists with lab work. The support has helped her overcome anticipated challenges. While she once expected that she would need her male counterparts to tutor her, she now finds that she is often in a position to tutor them.

After two internship experiences where she was one of very few females on staff, Chung realized how crucial it would be for her to define her place in the industry. She notes that she has worked hard to succeed. “It’s good in a sense because you can shine more, but if you don’t do well in the field, you can easily be overshadowed by males,” she says.

Role Models Make a Difference

A sense of community, belonging and collegiality is important. The availability of role models helps females through these challenges. Trautvetter believes that the presence of female faculty and graduate students is essential to fostering female students. After earning her PhD in higher education, she was especially interested in how faculty members develop, learn to teach and interact with students. She soon realized that these topics are closely tied to student development and the need for role modeling. Chung echoes this notion when she says, “I wish there were more female professors. … I think it just doesn’t show to other students that they could be a professor too.”

Trautvetter has already presented her research to the American Society for Engineering Education, where her co-authored paper won the 2011 Denice D. Denton Best Paper Award for the Women Engineering Division. She is eager to continue to share this research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

According to Trautvetter, “There continues to be a growing concern in the engineering community to increase the representation of women students and faculty. … How can these encouraging environments at the institutions we studied be reproduced or introduced at other institutions? I think this needs to be in the forefront of our thinking in order to bring about new exciting contributions to the world of science and technology.”