OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

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Changing the Face of Engineering

Students working in a lab

“Changing the face of engineering is an international issue right now,” said Ellen Momsen, director of the Women and Minorities in Engineering (WME) program at OSU.

Despite demographic changes in other professions, engineering is still struggling to be more diverse. It’s an issue on the radar of companies like Intel, Tektronix, and Symantec, all of which financially support OSU’s WME

“The companies really like their design teams to reflect what America looks like — 50% women and 24% minority groups, but we’re certainly not graduating that nationally in engineering right now,” explained Momsen.  

OSU has recently joined the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation which aims to double the number of underrepresented minority students in engineering and science in five years. It’s an added incentive to boost WME’s recruitment and retention programs already in existence and implement some new ones.

Momsen said that engineering and computer science can be overlooked by a lot of young people who know only of the stereotypical nerdy image.

“It’s a real challenge to try and educate people about what engineering and computer science careers are really like. They can have jobs making a difference in people’s lives and have flexibility and a good income at the same time,” she said.

Outreach programs such as Women Engineering Their Future for high school girls, the Saturday Academy for middle and high school girls, and SESEY, a summer program for children from underrepresented groups, all aim to expose a broader audience to the kinds of exciting careers that are available in engineering.

Engineering students at OSU also act as ambassadors in middle and high schools all over Oregon, where they talk about the different careers that are available in engineering.

Having more diversity is helpful for everyone because they will all need to learn how to be an effective team member in a diverse group.

It seems to be working. “Of my ambassadors now, about seven of them are women students who said they had never even thought about engineering until they had an ambassador come to their class,” Momsen said.

One of them, Nicole Shaw said, “That’s the reason I became an engineering student, and that’s why I love to be an ambassador. I get really excited when we go out to the schools.”

In addition to being a wonderful recruitment program, the student ambassadors benefit from the opportunity to work, improve communication skills, and develop friendships.

Momsen said that feeling connected and having good support to get through some of the tougher classes are critical for retaining students in engineering, and thus, many of the programs aim to build bonds between the students and make sure they have help when they need it.

These programs include mentoring connections between students and faculty, study table groups with upper division students, research opportunities, brown bag lunch movie events, and one of Momsen’s favorites — a camping trip for incoming freshman before the Fall term starts.

“Changing the culture of the whole college will make it better for everybody. Having more diversity is helpful for everyone because they will all need to learn how to be an effective team member in a diverse group. It’s one of the really important learning skills for an engineer,” Momsen said.