October 28, 2010

Program guides female students in STEM fields

Posted: October 28, 2010
WISE students and Sparky making pitchfork symbols.
WISE students pose with Sparky at one of the recent Game Day Pep Rally at the Polytechnic campus.

Studies show the gender gap between girls and boys in math achievement scores has closed all the way up to the college level. Despite this closure, though, women make up only 20% of engineering and computer science majors.

Through programs like Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, Robyn McKay is hoping to improve that percentage for women considering careers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“Girls are still dropping out of math and science, and I don’t believe it’s because the curriculum is too difficult,” says McKay, staff psychologist in Student Counseling Services at ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

McKay started the program last year for the female students majoring in STEM fields to help guide them through historically male-dominated subject areas. McKay has been mentoring women in the science and engineering fields for more than 13 years.

“One of the things that detract women from being in STEM programs is that sometimes they are the only female in the class,” says McKay. “The WISE student organization gathers women majoring in the STEM fields together as a support system.”

Kelsey Rodgers, a senior in engineering and a member of WISE, recalls her experience of being one of a few women in her program. “I didn’t realize it would be a problem, but it got harder as I went along,” she says. “Being able to socialize and network with other women on campus makes a difference.”

Odesma Dalrymple, an assistant professor in engineering in the College of Technology and Innovation says, “You may sometimes feel like a minority or that you don’t fit in. Programs like WISE provide an avenue where you can express those fears or feelings in a very safe place.”

An outgrowth of the program is the WISE Residential Program, offered through the College of Technology and Innovation. It provides women majoring in the STEM fields a positive living environment. Located in Falcon Hall, it is open to female freshman students as part of the Technology House Residential College.

Monthly workshops that focus on whole life development are offered with varying topics as well as lecture series where professional women, ASU faculty members and staff in the STEM fields discuss experiences that helped to shape their lives and careers.

McKay, who serves as an advisor to WISE, feels many young women in the STEM fields do not have a close alliance with a mentor.

“While professional mentoring is essential, young scientists and engineers also need to understand how their creativity can interact with their emotions, how to lead others, and how to recognize danger zones that may deter a young woman from her professional goals. The WISE curriculum addresses these issues, ” she says.

Since it started a year ago, membership in WISE has doubled and McKay is looking at ways to provide outreach to female high school students. University Vice President and Dean of the College Keith Hjelmstad agrees that WISE is a valuable resource for recruiting young women into the engineering and science fields.

“As young people sort out what they want to do in life, seeing someone just a bit further down the path who you can identify with in some way is often helpful in getting to the ‘I can do this, too’ conclusion,” he says.

McKay wants to secure a grant to grow WISE and to develop new programs as well as expand on existing ones. “This program is really about helping women develop their leadership skills and their creativity in order to provide innovative solutions on a global scale,” says McKay.

For information about the WISE program contact Robyn McKay at robyn.mckay@asu.edu or (480) 727-1255. 

Written by Tana Ingram

Media Contact:
Christine Lambrakis, lambrakis@asu.edu
480-727-1173
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