Women engineers get hands-on to defy gender expectations in under-represented field.
By James Dusek
Engineering sophomore Crista Cerda felt alone when she moved from her small hometown in Mexico to attend an American high school. She didn’t speak English, she didn’t understand the school system and she didn’t have many friends who could relate to her problems.
At this college, still struggling to overcome those challenges, Cerda found a student organization primarily for women interested in engineering and related fields to support her.
“Once you talk to people who are going through the same stuff as you, you kind of go like, ‘Oh, well, at least I’m not the only one,’ so it helped me in creating the support of friends and fellow students,” she said.
This college’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers offers students such as Cerda a place to go for support and fellowship. Besides learning, studying and encouragement, the group has guest speakers, participates in community outreach events and has groups currently working on nearly a dozen engineering projects. Though the name would suggest the society is for women who study engineering, the officers emphasized all students regardless of gender or major are welcome.
Cerda became president of the society last year. The group has more than 20 active members — significantly more than previous semesters. In fall 2015, the society had only three members. A new slate of passionate officers took the reins to spur on the massive growth, bringing in students from their classes and seeking out interesting research projects for them to work on.
“I think what it is, our personalities blend really well,” said engineering sophomore Tepher Ward, who was vice president of projects for the society last year.
Life as an engineering student is hard, especially for women. Secretary Lourdes Torres said being so outnumbered in engineering classrooms full of men can make women feel uncomfortable.
“It’s something that makes you think … ‘do I still want to keep with this? Do I want to stick with this?’” she said.
Ward said nearly all the club’s female members reported that in group projects, they tend to be ignored and excluded from important engineering decisions.
According to a report from the national organization, 61 percent of women in engineering said they have to prove themselves many times to receive the same respect as their male colleagues.
The society encourages women because, given the chance, they can offer different, important perspectives on engineering.
“Women tend to have to multitask on a daily basis,” Ward said. “… You don’t get to say ‘go away for now, I’ll deal with you later.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”
Ward said women carry that mentality into the workplace, positioning women in a mindset that’s particularly important for engineering.
“You tend to think, ‘Are the actions that I’m going to take going to have a long-term negative effect?’” she said.
Some members of the now-thriving group, including Cerda, Ward and Torres, experienced the knowledge and perspectives of women engineers firsthand when they attended the society’s national conference in October in Philadelphia.
“It was amazing,” Cerda said. “It was like a dream. Unbelievable.”
At the conference, the students met and received advice from industry professionals and other university chapters.
“In there, you have a lot of opportunities to meet amazing people that are willing to help you,” Cerda said.
The advice they received included thorough résumé reviews, which gave them knowledge they brought back to the rest of the club.
The students also hosted a panel at the conference about the difficulties faced by community college students in particular and what the national society could do to help them more.
The club has existed as an unofficial group for several years because some requirements set by the national group, such as membership fees and attendance requirements, put community college students at a disadvantage.
The group needs more members to be registered with the national organization to be official, Crista said. If the group gains card-carrying members by the end of February, they have a shot at being accepted as an official chapter. Earning that title would put this college on a short list of community colleges with official chapters.
Along with their prospective official status, the club hopes to return this semester ready to do more hands-on engineering work.
“My favorite thing is to see the excitement of the girls, like, ‘Oh my God, we went to do projects and touch stuff and burn things and break them,’ because most of them, they don’t have that opportunity when they were kids,” Cerda said. “They were (told), ‘Oh, you play with dolls … Don’t touch that. Don’t touch that.”
The society’s projects this semester include a high-tech shipping container used to grow plants at Eco Centro. Teams have been working this semester on designing grow lights, water pumps and monitoring systems, and this semester the hands-on work will begin.
The club is also developing an outreach program to teach middle and high school students about engineering and electricity. Their goal is to give young women a hands-on project to empower them to learn.
“If somebody had proposed to me or showed me, like, ‘Look, we’re going to do this today. We’re going to build a windmill. We’re going to build a little circuit that lights up. We’re going to build, you know, a water system,’ oh my gosh, I would’ve been like, freaking out,” Torres said. “I’m glad that now I can actually offer that to girls.”
Torres said for young girls, there’s nothing more empowering than the interest and encouragement of other women.
“Girls … don’t get to use as many power tools, because people are like, ‘Oh my God, we have to keep you safe and protected, so we don’t want you to touch that,’” Torres said.
But the motivated club members don’t show any signs of stopping. Their passion for tinkering and engineering overflows even when speaking about their work. These students, the world’s next civil engineers and physicists, have already built something they are proud of — a family on campus that teaches, supports and pushes them to be greater.
For more information on the society, visit the MESA Center in Room 204 of Chance Academic Center or email email@example.com.