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STEM Thought Leader - Susan Metz

Leading the Way...

A Conversation with Susan Metz

Susan Metz

By Bev Louie and Lily Gossage


Susan Metz has been instrumental in changing the landscape for women in engineering for over 30 years. She has tirelessly worked to develop women in engineering and science programs because she knows women engineering students benefit greatly, both professionally and personally, from a strong community of women. We recently caught up with this accomplished yet humble leader who has won over $9 million in grants to work on individual and collaborative projects. Find out about Susan's role in developing WEPAN, some of her other notable achievements, and her insights on a variety of topics, including her newest project, ENGAGE.


Susan Metz has been immersed in increasing access and success of women in engineering and influencing the climate in engineering schools for many years. In 1980, Susan convinced her visionary dean at Stevens Institute of Technology to host a summer program by writing her first proposal to Exxon for $15,000. At that time, engineering was an "intimidating" field, completely dominated by men. Forty high school junior women - most of whom were the only ones in their advanced physics or calculus classes - gathered to meet each other and learn about engineering as a career path. Susan remembers one quiet young woman - the top student in her class with perfect standardized test scores - who stood at the end of the program, and said, "Being here with all of you and meeting practicing women engineers made me realize I could succeed in engineering." The uncertainty of success expressed by a woman of such high academic caliber was a clear call to Susan, sparking a personal interest and passion to make a difference that exists to this day. 


The Formation of a National Organization


The rest, really, is history - WEPAN history. Susan's efforts to support women in engineering were not limited to her home institution. When attending ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education) conferences, she found that there were others working on similar issues at their institutions. Susan, along with other women in engineering advocates across the country, knew that if real progress was to be made it required a nationally coordinated effort. The question of whether to use other existing professional organizations to address women in engineering, or to start a new dedicated organization was addressed at an exploratory conference supported by NSF funding.   


Amidst many questions and unknowns, Susan Metz, Jane Daniels, and Suzanne Brainard founded the Women in Engineering Program & Advocates Network (WEPAN) in 1990The organization's members took on the role of helping each other learn about and create resources for starting and tailoring programs to increase access, retain, and advance women in engineering. Susan made a strong case to her administration for the need to tap the intellectual talent of women for the engineering profession on a national level. She credits the Stevens administration for understanding the time and commitment this would take, resulting in their willingness to grant her a significant amount of release time to take on a sustaining national leadership role in WEPAN. In reflecting back on WEPAN's first decade, Susan marvels at the "spirit of cooperation, strong commitment to volunteerism and professionalism that was the hallmark of the organization - characteristics that continue to exist today which have resulted in personal and professional friendships and connections that benefit long-standing and new WEPAN members."


The initial focus of WEPAN was two-fold: establishing programs that increased access for girls interested in math and science; and establishing retention programs for undergraduate students majoring in engineering. This meant working with engineering schools to increase awareness about engineering for young women, their parents, teachers, and counselors; and developing or enhancing programs to retain female engineering students. WEPAN leaders spent a great deal of time raising money and implementing efforts to facilitate seminars, workshops, and the development of resource materials aimed at providing technical assistance to a burgeoning group of new WIE/WISE directors and programs. WEPAN Regional Training Seminars, which involved about 200 schools over the course of eight years, launched and supported nearly 100 new campus-based efforts. Many of these seminar participants later became part of WEPAN's leadership after the expiration of the founders' prolonged terms of office - a very positive development.


The large task of conducting business and growing the organization solely on the backs of volunteers led Susan and the other leaders to make the decision to hire an executive director. Susan says, "It was difficult enticing people to take a leadership role in WEPAN because there was not enough support to maintain the operations of a growing organization and take advantage of the growing number of opportunities presented to WEPAN. Although WEPAN's bank balance was not flush with funds, we took a measured risk, resulting in a terrific decision to hire Diane Matt in 2004."   


As time went on, new challenges emerged. The restructuring or dissolution of women in science and engineering programs as a result of court challenges and academic downsizing led to positive and negative outcomes. For example, because the Stevens summer program for women was viewed as an outstanding outreach program (due in large part to Susan's leadership), it was opened to both men and women at the urging of the Stevens administration. Susan viewed the incorporation of these types of programs into the fabric of the university as an ideal goal. However, Susan also believes that most universities need to retain a clear voice for women and minorities lest their issues become peripheral. With that in mind, she cautions, "when a strong women in engineering program exists, there is a tendency to rely on that program for everything related to women, when in fact, the entire engineering school should own the responsibility of improving enrollment and retention and the overall academic experience for engineering students." 

On Inspiring Emerging Women Leaders

As co-founder of WEPAN and leader of many programs and projects, Susan has advice for emerging women leaders as she recalls her own experiences. She talks passionately about the need to provide professional development and varied experiences to women in order to build the confidence they need to become leaders. She lists building and maintaining relationships with people, having multiple mentors in different capacities, and getting involved at the national level as three critical elements of how women can begin to grow in a leadership capacity. For women in engineering program directors who want to assume leadership roles within their university, Susan talks about how important it is to align their work with the institution's goals and objectives by "making yourself an integral part of an organization and building your credentials and experience."

Susan describes her experience working at a national level as being an "amazing career builder." She believes that effective leadership is developed when people have the opportunity to gain knowledge from various perspectives, and says, "Everyone needs to get out of their home organization to see what other people are doing and why."  According to Susan, being actively involved in relevant professional organizations and assuming leadership roles are essential to building experience and confidence.  Even as a strong advocate of networking for success, Susan stresses the importance of keeping current with the research and issues in one's field of work - and the age-old adage that 'knowledge is power' holds more significance for women who aspire to be leaders.

In encouraging more women to take on leadership roles, Susan also recognizes that many women continue to be confronted with the work-life balance dilemma in which career and family co-exist. As a woman with four children (the youngest of whom was one year old when she attended the first WEPAN Conference), and a husband with a demanding career, Susan is well aware of the challenge. For women who need or want to take time off for family, Susan advises that they continue to remain connected so that their transition back to work is easier. She suggests involvement in visible areas of professional organizations as a successful strategy. Susan advises women not to spread themselves too thin and guard against over-promising and under-delivering. "Be selective when it comes to parsing out the little discretionary time you have. Take on one task and do an outstanding job rather than taking on too much and falling short."  

Leading the ENGAGE Project

ENGAGE, Engaging Students in Engineering, is a five-year extension services project funded by NSF's Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program. The overall goal is to build capacity of 30 engineering schools to improve retention using three research-based strategies. The objective of extension service projects is to bridge the gap between research and practice, "an opportunity that is very unique at NSF." Susan maintains, "It is exciting and very challenging to focus on strategies that have been researched, published, discussed and recommended, and work to move them into the field." The three ENGAGE strategies include integrating everyday examples that students are familiar with to teach engineering concepts, improving spatial visualization skills of students with weak skills, and improving faculty-student interaction in and out of the classroom.


As Principal Investigator of ENGAGE, Susan reflects on her experience leading the first cohort of ten engineering schools in this process. "ENGAGE is all about the people involved - the people on the ENGAGE management team and the people selected by their deans to represent ENGAGE schools." Susan thoroughly enjoys working with and learning from faculty and staff from ENGAGE schools, all of whom "really care about their students' undergraduate experience and academic success." While she emphasizes that the strategies highlighted within the project disproportionately impact women in a positive way, ENGAGE focuses its message on improving retention for all students. The reasoning behind this "stealth approach" is that "engineering schools would be reluctant to participate in projects focused on any specific student population, particularly given the scarcity of resources in this current climate." Although women in engineering advocacy continues to be Susan's passion, her leadership of ENGAGE has extended her direction more broadly which is a very exciting development.  


Making a Difference


So why do Susan and the rest of us keep doing this work?  Often it is simply the satisfaction of knowing your passion can make a difference in an individual's life, and certainly the world at large. One of Susan's most personally satisfying moments came in the form of a heartfelt comment from a father. At a White House event honoring Susan for a prestigious national award in 1997, a man stood and said,  

"My daughter had no interest in using her math and science skills in college until she attended your summer program at Stevens. Now she is a successful engineer who is encouraging other young women towards this path."

This was a vivid reminder to Susan of the difference we all can make with the work we do. 

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