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WEPAN 30 for 30: NC State Women and Minority Engineering Program

September 21, 2021

The Women and Minority Engineering Program (WMEP) at the North Carolina State University (NC State) College of Engineering focuses on ensuring a diverse student body by providing community building and engagement, academic support and professional development through several activities to ensure an inclusive environment for all students.

WMEP is co-directed by Laura Bottomley and Angelitha L. Daniel. Bottomley is the Director of Women in Engineering, which works to foster an environment that includes women and increase the number of women in the college, and The Engineering Place, NC State University’s K–20 education and resource headquarters for exploring engineering and engineering education, and the new NC State Engineering Education program.

Daniel is the Special Advisor to the Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives & Director, Minority Engineering Programs (MEP). MEP’s mission is to develop and maintain programs that assist in the recruitment, retention, and graduation of African American, Native American and Hispanic students within the college.

NC State is a Women in Engineering Proactive Network (WEPAN) 30 for 30 Institutional Champion. “WEPAN brings us a number of benefits, says Bottomley.

“We connect with other schools and organizations who have the same goals as we do, so we can share knowledge and best practices. The WEPAN Women in STEM Knowledge Center is a site I visit all the time and direct others to as well.”

Programming is designed to support the goals and objectives of the WMEP, which is to create a sense of community and help students see themselves as engineers and computer scientists. “When our students graduate, that’s what they pinpoint as having been crucial to their success, that knowledge that we’re here for anything they need, whether that’s someone to help them with a challenge/problem or someone to celebrate their wins with,” says Daniel. “We create a place where our students feel like they have a home and a family of support. And that extends to all students. When diversity is done well, everyone engages and everyone benefits.” 

Examples of such programming include a signature Taste of Engineering and a study abroad program in Rwanda. During the former, each engineering department brings a food or drink connected with their program, so students can see fluid flow mechanics demonstrated in a layer cake, for example. Industry members are often in attendance as well. “Our students aren’t in a discipline until their second year, so we created a casual atmosphere where they can have serious conversations about their interests and future, which can be difficult. It’s hard to get scared to talk to a professor when they’re stirring dry ice for punch.”

The latter started as an idea during a planning session and grew into first an alternative spring break and the only study abroad program offered through a diversity organization at NC State. “Our students learn how engineers solve problems all around the world, and the value of knowing the people around you and being connected to the people you’re serving,” says Daniel. 

 The sense of community extends beyond enrolled students. With the understanding that early engagement is key to success, the Engineering Place works on educating young people about what engineering is, helping children see themselves as being capable of becoming engineers and scientists, and increasing the diversity of those applying to NC State.

 These early engagements have proven effective. “I had dinner with a recent NC State graduate whose mother forced her to attend our middle school program,” says Bottomley. “She became interested in figuring out how to reverse engineer the brain, looked for opportunities to do research in high school, and graduated with a Gem Consortium Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. She’s now getting her Ph.D.”

A decade ago, only 14% of the College of Engineering first-year class was women, and 9% were students of color. Today, those numbers are 33% and 15%, respectively, and overall enrollment has increased as well. Bottomley and Daniel along with the WMEP staff are working towards a goal of 50% women and 30% students of color. “The crucial thing is to keep creating a culture and climate where students feel like they belong, and don’t have to walk away from who they are as they become engineers and computer scientists.”

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