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How Do You Get Women to Stay in Engineering? Nerd Girls Has the Answer

By John R. Platt

Just look at the faces of the engineers at your next meeting or conference and you'll see something obvious: it's still a male-dominated profession. While more and more women study for and enter technology fields every year, the unexpected truth is that they don't stay. In fact, according to a recent study by the National Research Council, women leave high technology, computer, science and engineering careers twice as frequently as men.

Who are the Nerd Girls?

We are a growing, global movement which celebrates smart-girl individuality that’s revolutionizing our future.

We want to encourage other girls to change their world through Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, while embracing their feminine power.

Brains are beautiful
Geek is Chic.
Smart is sexy.
Not either/or.


Why do women leave the profession, or not consider entering it in the first place? "One of the problems is that nobody really knows what engineers do," says Karen Panetta, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tufts University and creator of the nationally acclaimed "Nerd Girls" education program. Women especially don't see the reasons for becoming electrical or mechanical engineers because they don't understand the roles engineers play. "Other fields, like biomedical, are popular for women because they see the end goal and it motivates them," Panetta says.

New Ways to Teach Women

Because she got her start in industry instead of going right into teaching, Panetta says she has a different perspective on how to teach students, both men and women. "I don't treat my students like students. I treat them like team members. It's a team effort in industry, and in learning. You have to participate by asking questions and doing lab reports."

In her classes, and in her Nerd Girls curriculum, Panetta picks projects that give her teams concrete goals. "Everything has a way to benefit the community, individuals or the environment," she says. "Unless you show your students that you're putting your theory to practice, you're just teaching history."

The first project she had one of her Nerd Girl teams work on was building a solar car. "You don't usually see women with cars," she says. But the sustainable energy project, and others like it, showed her students that EEs weren't spending their lives sitting in cubicles working on meaningless tasks. "Women need to see the big picture, not just a small piece of the puzzle."

Forcing young women to work in teams on tough projects also encourages them to break through their confidence issues. "Even though women might score well on exams, they think it is pure luck," says Panetta. "I couldn't imagine having so little self-confidence. Succeeding, to me, is not by the grade, it's by focusing on your own learning experience. So I picked class projects that were absolutely intimidating. You couldn't do them on your own, you needed a team. The research and theory that they learned taught them to ask the right questions, which is the key to finding the right solutions."

Her teaching methods have proven results. "Ninety-five percent of my girls go on to graduate school," she says. Nationwide, only 8 percent of women undergrads in EE go on to graduate school.

Entering the Job Market

The skills Panetta teaches also help these young women in the job market. "Now, when any of these girls go out and interview, they're head and shoulders above their competition. It's not your GPA, it's not what's coming out of you."

But that first job is also a tough stepping stone for many women. Part of that, Panetta says, might come from their university experience — or lack of it. "They graduate from their undergrad institution, and if they don't feel they have a competence, they feel they don't have what it takes to go on."

Many women also graduate without what Panetta calls a "capstone" experience. "They didn't have something that pulled it all together for them. Maybe their internship wasn't gratifying or something like that. One or two bad experiences can really make a difference. Women need to use and grow their skills or they feel they're not going anywhere. Guys on the other hand — they'll just say it was boring and shake it off."

And that first job can be overwhelming and under-satisfying, which may result in women saying the profession is not for them, even after completing the several years of education that led to that job. Having a good mentor helps, says Panetta, who points out that most schools don't provide students with a good experience, and recent grads end up needing on-the-job training.

Nerd Girls to the Rescue

Panetta's Nerd Girls education program (which has long been supported by IEEE) is about to get a huge boost. MPH Entertainment, the producers of the popular "Dog Whisperer" TV show, are currently casting a "Nerd Girls" reality show. Developed from Panetta's curriculum, the producers promise the show will encourage women "to change their world through science, technology, engineering and math, all while embracing their feminine power."

MPH partner Jim Milio recently said, "We believe that empowering young women to demonstrate that 'geek is chic' and 'brains are beautiful' offers a potent and compelling message in today's media-obsessed society."

Panetta says Hollywood has been calling about the Nerd Girls brand for several years now, but MPH was the partner she has been waiting for. "The girls are going to be doing good things for the community and people, and we're going to be changing these girls' lives and making them more confident."

The women who end up being cast on the show will be challenged with tough problems to solve, while also learning to work as a team and bring in ideas from outside their own experience. "I teach them, let's use our research skills and networks and find the right answers," Panetta says. "I want to show them how to use these resources that are all around them. An inter-disciplinary approach is vital. Maybe they need to bring in artists or sculptors or singers or athletes to make it all happen. You can't do engineering alone; it just doesn't work."

Panetta says she has high hopes for the program. "One of the things I'm hoping for is to get out and help people around the country who are asking us for help," she says. "We're looking at populations that industry doesn't look at as a major profit margin. We want the people that have been forgotten, to come up with solutions to the problems they are facing. There's nothing better to show the power of engineering without all of the scary math and science behind it. The show will tell people: here's what you can do."

Along the way, Panetta hopes to inspire not just young girls, but also their fathers. "We're hoping fathers will watch, too. Don't forget that one-third of the membership of IEEE Women in Engineering is men. Fathers want their daughters to have opportunities."

The casting process for the show has already begun, with women (aged 18-23) submitting applications and videos to Panetta and the producers. "We already have lots of great candidates, but we have extended the deadline to give everyone a chance to apply," Panetta says. Applications are due 1 August 2010 for phase 1 of the casting process.

Interested? Pull out the video camera and get started. Don't let fear get in your way, advises Panetta. "If you can handle the math and science of an engineering degree, how hard can anything else be?"



John R. Platt is a freelance writer currently living in coastal Maine. He is a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Tonic.com and IEEE's The Institute. He writes the Extinction Countdown blog for Scientific American. http://www.john-platt.com

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2010 IEEE

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