Engineering has an image problem

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By Mitzi M. Montoya, Ph.D.

Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor company, recently surveyed more than 1,000 teenagers to determine their attitudes towards engineering as a career path. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the company found that more than twice as many teenage boys (37 percent) as teenage girls (18 percent) had considered a career in engineering.

The students surveyed were as young as 13, suggesting that girls start moving away from engineering at a very young age.

The survey did uncover some promising news, however. Intel found that many teens don’t understand what engineers actually do. When the questioners explained that engineers work to provide clean water to poor African communities, helped rescue the trapped Chilean miners, and get to work on “cool” projects, such as designing protective pads for athletes, teenagers became much more interested in engineering as a career path. Even just a brief introduction to the kind of projects engineers work on – and how much money they can make – was enough to double the number of girls who said they would consider the field.  (Boys saw a 50 percent increase.)

Growing up, I experienced the life of an engineer firsthand. My father, a first-generation Mexican American, decided early on that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life going down into the mines of Colorado. After one particularly grueling day, he asked the foreman how he could get his job. The foreman told him, “Get a degree in mining engineering.”  Since he’d never had a single algebra class and he’d struggled through high school, that was a tall order. But, he was determined and, so, he set off on a course that would eventually take him through junior college and on to Colorado State University, where he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.

My father met my mother in college. If it were possible, she was even more focused on education than he was. Originally from Alabama, her father moved the family to find work in sawmill camps in the mountains of Colorado. She grew up in the 1950s – no electricity or TV in the sawmill camp – and saw education as the key to a better life. She nurtured a lifetime love of learning through weekly trips to the library, where the only rule was that my sister, brother and I could only check out ten books at a time. She still visits the library weekly.

Together, my parents gave us every imaginable exposure to all kinds of learning opportunities, as well as lots of challenging projects mostly revolving around fixing and building things around the house and farm. It was through these projects that I learned what it meant to be an engineer – a problem solver. In fact, when it was my turn to go to college, my parents’ advice was that I could be anything I wanted to be, as long as it was some kind of engineer. I graduated from Michigan State with a degree in general engineering and then went on to graduate school to study business and statistics.

Obviously, this career choice was somewhat unusual. Latinas make up eight percent of the U.S. population, but only one percent of employed scientists and engineers, according to the National Science Foundation. The percent of Latinas with graduate degrees is even smaller. This obvious disparity has an impact on the next generation, because a lack of role models may lead Latinas to believe that these careers are unattainable.

We see some evidence of this effect stretching farther back in the pipeline. In 2005-2006, Latinas earned 61 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to Hispanics, but only 37 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. By the end of college, Latinas have earned just over one percent of all engineering degrees. More broadly, even though women are now the majority of all college graduates, only five percent of female freshmen entering college plan to major in engineering, computer science or the physical sciences.  

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