Interdisciplinary Research on Recruiting Women to Engineering Wins National Award

Cal Poly faculty members Jane Lehr and Helene Finger and ethnic studies alumna Beverley Kwang were recognized by the American Society of Engineering Education for their research into increasing the number of college women who enroll in engineering disciplines.

The paper, titled, “When, Why, How, Who – Lessons from First-Year Female Engineering Students at Cal Poly for Efforts to Increase Recruitment,” won the Best Zone Paper from the national organization.

The paper is the result of an ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration between Cal Poly’s Women’s Engineering Program and the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. The team sought to discover why women’s participation in engineering is severely disproportionate to that of males. 

“Although an increasing number of women are entering and succeeding in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, a significant gender gap remains,” said Jane Lehr, associate professor of ethnic studies and women’s and gender studies. “The purpose of our research was to explore why females are not choosing to undertake science or engineering majors at the same rate as their male peers.” 

Finger and Lehr are both passionate about promoting women in STEM fields. “We both felt that improving recruitment would have the biggest impact on increasing the number of women in engineering — and that led to the realization that there was a dearth of information about when, why and how women were choosing to study engineering,” said Finger, director of the Women’s Engineering Program.

The study focused on the pre-college experiences of first-year female engineering students at Cal Poly. In an online survey, 112 participants were asked about factors that led to their choice of an engineering major and how they see themselves as engineers.

Among the findings: parents are key influences and decision-making partners; recruitment efforts should target high-achieving high school females, whether or not they see themselves as math- or science-focused; and recruitment messages should emphasize how engineers make a difference in the world. The results turn on its head a widely held assumption that students choose an engineering major during their elementary or middle school years.

While research continues, the initial results have impacted the approach to female engineering student recruitment and retention at Cal Poly. “Partly as a result of this research, our incoming freshman class has the highest percentage of female engineering students in the history of our program — 23 percent,” Finger said.

In addition to the College of Engineering and College of Liberal Arts, support was also provided by Cal Poly’s Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education (CESaME).


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