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Posted at 09:15 AM ET, 05/03/2012

Why the nation needs more female engineers

 Here is a guest post from Stephanie Hill, president of Lockheed Martin’s Information Systems & Global Solutions-Civil division.


Stephanie Hill (Mike Rote/Lockheed Martin Corp.)
“Are you sure you want to be a software engineer? You are such a people person. Won’t you be stuck working alone, staring at a computer for hours on end?”

Those were the questions that my sister asked as I declared my intent to pursue a software engineering degree at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). She was right – I am a people person. In fact, in high school I intended to pursue a career in psychiatry. But a college elective course – in COBOL programming – peaked my interest like nothing before. And with wonderful mentors who provided me a glimpse into various career opportunities, I shifted gears, full speed ahead into the world of engineering.  I have not looked back since.  

As an African-American, female engineer, I’m certainly in the minority. New statistics released this month by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee note that while women now comprise a growing share of the college-educated workforce, only 14 percent of engineers are women, as are just 27 percent of individuals working in computer science and math positions.  There is a similar under-representation of Hispanic and black non-Hispanic workers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering math) workforce. Each of these groups accounts for only 6 percent of STEM workers. Overall, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in STEM fields peaked at 24 percent in 1985; by 2009, the share had fallen to 18 percent.

At the same time we are producing fewer engineers, the need for this profession has never been greater. Think of the many challenges facing our nation that engineers – yes, engineers – grapple with every day: from protecting our national security from cybersecurity threats to our energy utilities and financial markets, to finding new energy solutions to decrease our independence on fuel, to supporting the FBI and law enforcement in decreasing terrorist threats with cutting-edge identification tools. With the pending retirement of many of our hardest-working baby boomer engineers, it’s up to the next generation workforce to step up and take on these exciting careers in engineering, and it’s up to the seasoned generation of engineers to drive excitement in this next generation workforce. 

The Role of Industry

A recent Washington Post column by Kristin Tichenor of Worcester Polytechnic Institute discussed the many reasons why young women shy away from engineering as a career, including a lack of female engineering role models, having little knowledge of the solution-oriented work of engineers, and misconceptions about engineering being a “solitary” profession.  

Many school systems across the nation are doing incredible work exposing students to engineering. For example, in D.C., Cardozo High School’s TransTech Academy now includes a pre-engineering curriculum.

But schools cannot go it alone. Industry must step up its role in attracting young women to this exciting career where they can truly make a difference in people’s daily lives.

Invest in Partnerships, not Publicity

Lockheed Martin has made a commitment to K-12 schools across our nation to help engineering and math “come alive.” In Baltimore County, we work directly with the superintendent to understand which schools need help in infusing exciting STEM curriculum into the classroom. In some instances, we bring teachers into our facilities for externships, giving them hands-on experiences that they take back to their classrooms. Our employees also partner with teachers, and visit classrooms periodically to discuss their current work and answer questions about career opportunities. This helps “put a face on engineering” and provides career role models that many students are seeking.

We have also partnered with the Alliance to Save Energy on a program that brings energy-efficiency engineers into public schools for hands-on demonstrations and mentoring. In Prince George’s County, volunteers work with two elementary schools and one middle school on projects such as measuring energy usage and creating awareness amongst the students and teachers of energy efficient practices, and students are given the opportunity to use the tools that engineers use every day.

The aforementioned TransTech Academy hosts a unique Industry Day, featuring 50 professionals from the private and public sector as panelists and guest speakers.  Students interact with speakers throughout the day learning about careers that may not be on their radar.

Don’t Stop at K-12

Once we’ve attracted more female students into college to pursue engineering, our work is done, right?  Unfortunately, new data from the University of California at Los Angeles show that roughly 40 percent of all students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. Many students are ill-prepared for the academic demands that await them. Others are frustrated by the “theory-based” nature (and lecture-taught method) of technical education.

While all future engineers need a robust understanding of math, science and other core curriculum, more universities must also adopt project-based work, allowing students to collaborate on “real-world” projects that will inspire them. Industry can and must play a role in partnering with universities to create exciting curriculum. We currently partner with the Missouri University of Science & Technology to shape curricula that adhere to the needs of our future workforce in information technology. And who said field trips are just for elementary schools? Industry should welcome university students into labs and work stations. We must also continue to support extracurricular activities such as Capitol College’s Cyber Battle Laboratory (CBL), where students simulate – and ultimately defeat - various hacker attack scenarios. 

This is Our Job as Leaders

At Lockheed Martin, we recognize that our footprint is large and many of our STEM commitments would not be possible without our dedicated employee base across the country. But as a board member of Governor Martin O’Malley’s Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, I’ve seen firsthand how companies large and small can help excite our next generation workforce. We need more companies across divergent industries to help us promote engineering, create innovative K12 and university partnerships, and open their doors to interested students. Solving our nation’s critical challenges depends on it.  

By  |  09:15 AM ET, 05/03/2012

Categories:  Public policy, Students | Tags:  STEM, engineering

 
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