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Thursday, January 11, 2018

'It's hard to be what you can't see' | - University News

"UW-Madison has built a supportive community for women studying in STEM fields" summarizes Pat Schneider, Writer for the Capital Times. 

Participants in UW-Madison’s Women in Science and Engineering learning community board a bus at Elizabeth Waters Residence Hall for an October field trip to the headquarters of Epic Systems in Verona.
Photo: Michelle Stocker

The dining hall in the Carson Gulley Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus was dressed for dinner, complete with white tablecloths. Along with an Asian-inspired buffet, networking was on the menu.
Scores of students, all women, gathered at the tables and chatted about their classes as female professors found their places among them.

The weekly seminar of the Women In Science and Engineering learning community gives female undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering and math a chance to meet women succeeding in STEM in a low-key setting.

There’s dinner table conversation, introduction of faculty guests — women who describe their research and announce opportunities for undergrads to work for them — and a presentation by a woman working in STEM.

Along with reassurances that the feeling of not belonging is widely shared among this crowd, sometimes there’s a glimpse of the fire that fuels breakthroughs.

As UW-Madison, like colleges across the country, strives to attract women to study, and pursue careers in STEM fields, research is sending conflicting signals on what works. Nevertheless, women say, they can flourish with the support of one another.

Trina McMahon, an engineering professor who studies aquatic ecology, was the evening’s presenter. She recalled that as a student her passion carried her through setbacks.

“Certainly there were times I came home sobbing, because my experiment was such a failure. But it was the one thing I wanted to do — I didn’t care if it made me miserable,” McMahon said.

Students in WISE say the assistance and moral support provided by the community help them stay the course.

“I don’t know if I would have stuck with it without it,” said Julia Loosen, a senior and WISE program assistant.

“You meet a woman doing research that’s highly interesting and you think: ‘What can I do to get there?’ Two years later you might be working for her,” said Marie Aguirre, a sophomore majoring in applied mathematics.

The proportion of women in STEM, at UW-Madison and nationally, ranges widely from majors that are strongly male-dominated to those where women are in the majority.

Computer science and engineering, for example, are fields where women are pretty scarce. Among UW-Madison bachelor’s degree recipients in computer science in 2015-2016, 13 percent were women. That compares to 19 percent nationally. In engineering, 21 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients that year were women, at UW-Madison and nationally.

Other disciplines are less disproportionate, but still have significantly fewer women than men. For example, 33 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in physical sciences like chemistry and physics were female at UW-Madison in 2015-2016, compared to 39 percent nationally. In mathematics, it was 37 percent female at UW and 42 percent nationally.

But in biological and agricultural sciences, women are the majority. Sixty percent of bachelor’s recipients in the country in 2015-16 were female, 57 percent at UW-Madison. In social sciences and psychology, 63 percent of graduates, nationally, were women compared to 49 percent at UW-Madison...

Diversity is a top priority at UW-Madison’s Department of Computer Sciences, said professor Michael Swift, who has long worked on such efforts.

“It’s a very pressing issue. We don’t know quite what to do,” Swift said.
Introducing more female students to computer science is important all around, he said.

“We feel there is a large population of people who would benefit from learning computer science that we are not reaching,” Swift said. “We like to teach and work with the best students — and we’re not getting all the best and brightest now by not getting many women.”...

UW-Madison’s College of Engineering began to see an increase in women students several years ago, when it followed the lead of competing institutions and changed its policy to allow freshmen to enroll in the school as majors, said Manuela Romero, associate dean for undergraduate affairs.

“It takes away the uncertainty,” Romero said. “It’s been a big recruitment tool for us.”

To support women and other students who are underrepresented in engineering, the Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity program provides peer mentoring and a community of support, Romero said.

The college worked hard over the last decade to change the attitude toward tutoring, so students who most needed help would not feel stigmatized. Such cooperative learning is a key skill for future engineers.

“There is no such thing as the ‘lone engineer.’ Engineers always work through problems in groups,” Romero said.

As in computer science, there have been efforts to change the image of engineering, she said. “We talk about women in engineering, we talk about the impact of women on the engineering profession, we talk about how engineering can also be a helping profession. 

We want young women to be able to see themselves.”

The college also has developed pipeline programs to attract women and other underrepresented students to engineering. Camp Badger brings middle school students to campus for a weeklong residential program. Engineering Summer Camp is a six-week program for high school juniors and seniors.