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30 for 30 Profile: Michigan State University Women in Engineering Program

November 23, 2021

The Women in Engineering (WIE) program at the Michigan State University College of Engineering provides resources, services, and a positive environment to enable the success of women engineering students in their academic and professional pursuits.

WIE is a Women in Engineering Proactive Network (WEPAN) 30 for 30 Institutional Champion. Leo Kempel, Dean of the College of Engineering, saw WEPAN as an ideal venue for helping achieve the College’s goal of diversifying at not only the student level, but the faculty and staff levels as well.

“Our demographics should more closely resemble those of society as a whole. Joining WEPAN meant we were joining the larger effort of increasing the numbers of women in all engineering roles.”

Kempel believes being a WEPAN 30 for 30 member has brought value to the College. One of the biggest advantages is WEPAN’s community of practitioners and their wealth of expertise. “You can’t develop and test all the ideas yourself, but you can learn from others, and the information sharing among institutions about what’s working and what’s not working is extremely helpful,” he says. 

Judy Cordes, Director of the WIE Student Success Office, has seen tremendous growth since the program’s inception in 2007, when there were about 450 women at the undergraduate level. Today, the College has about 1400 women at the undergraduate level, and retention rates have increased to about 85-90%. Cordes, who has been an individual WEPAN member since the organization’s creation 30 years ago, credits WEPAN with providing access to ideas and programming from other members and colleagues across the country.

Programming at MSU Engineering includes WIE Connect, a mentoring program that matches first-year students with a junior or senior.  The program provides several group meetings each semester in addition to weekly contact between mentor and mentees. WIE Rise, a second-year program, provides a wider network of academic, personal and professional support to sophomores, especially as their engineering class loads increase.

On the other side of the admissions process, WIE does substantial work in civic engagement and K-12 outreach by going into the community and demonstrating to students, parents, high school counselors, and middle school teachers just what engineers can do. “We need diverse groups of people with different perspectives working on engineering problems,” says Cordes. “It’s important that women be encouraged to go into engineering so that they stay interested in that career option.”

WIE also partners with the College’s robust Society of Women Engineers (SWE) chapter. MSU graduate Betty Shanahan, former Executive Director and CEO of SWE, has remained active with the campus chapter, as has Penny Wirsing, a past SWE president, and also an MSU alumnae. Their success stories serve as role models for current students.

Other role models include women faculty members at the College, like Dr.Tamara Reed Bush, a Co-PI on MSU’s National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant and current interim chair of MSU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Dr. Bush runs a highly successful biomedical engineering lab at MSU and is a nationally active advocate for women exploring careers in engineering.

Kempel and Cordes both view women in engineering programs as a vital part of women’s success in engineering. When MSU was looking into forming WIE, Cordes drew upon an NSF-funded study that interviewed women students at 52 institutions, half of which had women in engineering programs and half which did not. Cordes found that the programs were the number one criteria for helping students decide what school to attend. 

“Women leave engineering, not because of academics, but because they feel engineering is not the place for them. Having a program that focuses on this underrepresented population allows students to fight imposter syndrome by talking to others in the same boat,” Cordes added. “Women look for community and for ways to connect with one another. Our program gives them that chance.” 

 

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