We need to talk about the female retention issue in the electrical and computer engineering department

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Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering building. - File Photo / Justin Decker

This year, approximately 70 electrical and computer engineering students will be graduating, and only two of them are girls.

The fact is that at Rowan, a substantially lower number of girls enroll in and stick with the electrical and computer engineering (ECE) curriculum in comparison to other engineering majors.

Over the years, the ECE department has had an issue with retaining female students. Dr. Robi Polikar, who has been the ECE department chair for nine years and started as an associate professor at Rowan in 2001, argues that retention rates are low due to there being fewer incoming female students.

ECE senior Helen Pan disagrees:

“He’s wrong. You have a higher chance of one of them leaving, but you shouldn’t use that as an excuse. There’s a lower number, so you should try your best to retain the girls you do have. There’s a reason why every year girls just leave.”

She’s not alone.

This retention issue is not unique to Rowan. In 2018, the American Society of Engineering Education found that the percentage of ECE bachelor’s degrees awarded to women was 17.3%. Compare this to other engineering majors like biomedical engineering, which awards 45.4% of bachelor’s degrees to women.

Rowan’s ECE department is starting to see increases in its female enrollment. Polikar said in an email that “in Fall 2018, we had a total of 18 women, constituting 5.4% of … the ECE student body. In Fall 2019 that number increased to 29, constituting 8.3% of the total ECE student body.”

Though this surely is improvement, it is nowhere near the ratio of women in other engineering majors at Rowan and elsewhere.

When faced with these jarring statistics, we must ask ourselves why women are underrepresented in the ECE field and how Rowan can be part of the solution.

For starters, female ECE students noted an issue in the curriculum itself. The first core class that freshman ECE students take is a course called Introduction to Digital Systems, which encompasses learning about different technologies and how to apply them in the real world.

Originally a sophomore-level course, Digital Systems was moved to the first semester of the curriculum. The new placement of this course allows ECEs a chance to engage in hands-on projects early on and gives them a better understanding of their major.

However, not every freshman student has developed the foundational skills necessary for the class, which puts students without a strong background in technical knowledge, whether that be through high school, family or otherwise, at a disadvantage.

Caroline Dudeck, a junior mechanical engineering student who dropped ECE in her freshman year, is one of those students who don’t have familial ties to any STEM fields.

“The class caters towards people who have experience, but the department needs to work towards getting people who don’t have experience up to some basis of where to start and where to go from there,” Dudeck said. “I feel that it’s very intimidating to be in class with people who know what they’re doing already.”

Sophomore ECE major Kaitlyn Langschultz echoed this sentiment:

“A lot of people come in with no programming experience at all, like me, I was one of those people. If we started with Intro to C++ [a coding class] first semester, and then got put into Digital Systems second semester, it would have made the labs a lot easier.”

There is also an unspoken perception among peers early on that everyone understands and grasps the course material. For female students who feel isolated in a class full of guys, they often don’t realize that many students are confused about the material, and they often struggled to advocate for themselves in scenarios like this.

“It’s just so intimidating when you think everyone knows everything. But they don’t at all and everyone is faking it,” Julia Konstantinos, a junior ECE major, said. “When everyone agrees that they’re faking it, they can learn more together.”

Evelyn Lliguicota, a freshman ECE major, felt the same as Konstantinos.

“Some kids in my digital systems class already had prior knowledge. I felt that if I asked the teacher something, my question would just prolong the lecture and that the rest of the class would not want that,” she said.

Another issue lies in the support system provided by professors in the ECE department. While students agree that the professors are highly qualified individuals with a variety of specializations that can benefit a range of student interests, the faculty still has a lot to learn about how they can be more inclusive toward women.

Konstantinos highlighted a situation in which she was told by three different professors in the department that she should switch to another major:

“One told me I should consider switching to business and that was not supportive at all. I still think he’s a great professor, but it wasn’t the right thing to be said. If people start crying, what you should say is don’t give up.”

Feeling unsupported is not exclusive to females in the major. In a survey of both male and female ECE students, the majority of students felt supported by only some of the ECE faculty. Though the amount of support varied by respondent, the overall consensus was that the ECE faculty could not be counted as supportive in its entirety.

Forms response chart. Question title: Do you feel supported as a student by the ECE Department faculty?. Number of responses: 15 responses.
Results from a survey of ECE students show that students don’t find consistent support from the faculty in the department. – Contributor / Giselle Onofre

Female students who have dropped the major also expressed their disappointment at the lack of female representation they saw in their classrooms. Although there were other girls in their respective year, they would usually be the only girl in a class full of male students.

“I was one of two when I switched majors, so it was definitely very hard to feel like I was supposed to be in the room with everyone else,” Samantha Mongiello, a senior computer science major who dropped ECE her sophomore year, said.

Some students who consider the major lose interest in pursuing it because they aren’t shown the potential the ECE major has to make a positive impact on the world. At the root of the problem is a miscommunication of the possibilities within the field.

A majority of the electives offered to upperclassmen ECE students focus on combat engineering. While this is beneficial for those interested in a defense career, this is not a career path that all students in the major wish to pursue.

Karlie Naphy, an ECE senior, relates to this sentiment, explaining that the department doesn’t provide enough opportunities to show how the electrical and computer engineering field can be used in a positive way.

“The college could do a better job of promoting the ECE major to people who want to make lives better,” Naphy said. “Some of us aren’t interested in making bombs for Lockheed.”

Recently, since research for this article began, a department meeting was held to address some of the curriculum issues experienced by students. Specifically, this meeting focused on reworking the curriculum, said Dr. John Schmalzel, an ECE professor.

To solve many of these issues, Polikar, the department head, consistently consults with Naphy to make progress. To avoid making any student feel isolated or possibly uncomfortable in a room full of only male students, Polikar instituted a new program for freshmen students that will place a few girls together in their core classes so that no girl is ever alone.

Additionally, in response to this investigation, Polikar has started to reach out to female ECE students to ensure that they are excelling in their course work.

Polikar also encourages engineering outreach through clubs like Women in Engineering and Society of Women Engineers, and uses an annual hackathon event, ProfHacks, to recruit female students early on.

Another useful resource for female ECE students is the A-Team, led by ECE technologist Mario Leone. The A-Team, short for Apprentice Engineering Team, is an interdisciplinary group of students looking to strengthen their skills beyond the classroom.

The hard and soft skills that students acquire on the team are invaluable and rarely taught in their typical core classes. This helps bolsters not just the skills of specifically female ECE students but also their self-confidence, according to Leone. Hands-on skills that are often glossed over in the core ECE curriculum, such as soldering, instrumentation and circuit board design, are also taught by Leone at workshops.

The A-Team also has a disproportionately high number of women and leans toward placing female students in leadership roles. Leone does everything he can to mentor these students and make them feel like important and supported members of the ECE department.

Konstantinos and Pan, who both considered dropping ECE, credit their decision to stay in the major in part to Leone’s support. Leone encouraged them not to give up on their aspirations and they ultimately decided to stick with the program.

“Faculty are not as supportive of women as they could be,” Leone said of the female retention issue in the department. “We need to reprogram the guys in the department to stop with the attitude. If you know how to do something, then teach somebody else.”

Addressing the problems encountered by ECE students, and female students in the major in particular, is the first step toward retaining women in the major. Though young girls aren’t always exposed to STEM topics, the department is in a position to place an emphasis on outreach and introduce them to engineering.

To retain female students already enrolled in the program, the department can expand their elective offerings to be more in-line with after-college opportunities, continue to rework the curriculum to remove the bias against those without technical backgrounds and, most importantly, support every student in the major, especially those who feel like the minority.

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