Colleges work to open roads for girls to study engineering

The New York Institute of Technology hosted "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" on Feb. 20, 2014, giving girls from across Long Island the opportunity to learn about drones, meet engineers and participate in hands-on activities. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

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Being the only girl in her robotics class at MacArthur High School didn't much bother Rita Sobhy. But when she got to college and found she was one of only two women in her electrical and computer engineering courses, she was downright baffled.

"I was shocked when I realized that in so many classes I was still the only girl in the room," said Sobhy, 19.

The sophomore at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury was among the students who volunteered to help with the college's "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" on Thursday.

Dozens of local middle and high school girls came to campus for the event aimed at getting them interested in the field. More importantly, organizers said, it brought them into the college engineering pipeline.

"Right now, these are the hot fields and they are the most profitable. It's where the jobs are and are going to be, so I want to get these girls out there," said Eileen Sill, 48, of Hicksville, who attended with her two daughters and the Girl Scouts of Nassau County.

The event is among several recently launched initiatives on the Island to recruit and retain young women for engineering programs. On the Island and nationally, the number of women going into that field of study continues to lag far behind that of men.

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'We're not doing enough'

There were 13,354 bachelor's degrees in engineering awarded to women last year -- less than one-fourth the 57,501 degrees earned by men, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The Virginia-based educational research group uses college enrollment data from more than 3,500 postsecondary institutions, tracking 98 percent of the college students in the nation.

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"We are not doing enough," said Nada Marie Anid, dean of the School of Engineering and Computing Sciences at NYIT. "When you look at the boom in Silicon Valley and now here in the New York region, we aren't even making a dent in technology."

Women gravitate to the life sciences or environment and biomedical engineering, Anid said. What Long Island needs are more programs and scholarships targeting young girls that will help boost enrollment in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering degrees, she said.

Officials at engineering schools at Stony Brook University, Hofstra University and Farmingdale State College said they see some progress in their enrollment and graduation numbers, crediting high school science camps and other programs that support young girls.

At Stony Brook, the number of female students in the undergraduate engineering program rose more than 50 percent in the last five years, from 197 in 2009 to 298 in 2013. The university hosts several programs that include a focus on pulling girls into engineering and technology studies, including the Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) after-school program for high school girls, an engineering summer camp co-sponsored by National Grid, and TechPrep, an after-school technology program targeting girls and teens in grades six through eight.

Hofstra's engineering school this year has an enrollment of 262 men and 55 women. The university has a club on campus for women engineers and sponsors a Women's Engineering Luncheon that brings together female professors in engineering with upper-class female engineering students and first-year female engineering students. Hofstra also offers programs for middle and high school girls, officials said.

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NYIT's engineering school now has 148 women, or 10.3 percent of the 1,371 enrollment. That's a 22.4 percent gain over the female enrollment of five years ago, administrators said.

Sobhy, the sophomore at NYIT, and her classmate Sana Ansari, 20, of Hicksville, said they want to make sure the few women in their electrical engineering program don't drop out. "Sometimes the guys put you down," Sobhy said. "They don't think you can handle the work or they second-guess you."

She said she found it difficult to keep up academically, and seriously considered changing majors until supportive faculty and classmates persuaded her to continue.

"We have to stick together," Ansari said. "It motivates us all to do better."

Part of the problem is the dearth of female professors in the ranks of engineering school faculty, which leaves girls and young women without adequate role models, Long Island's educators said.

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Anid became NYIT's first female engineering school dean in 2009. The school's engineering faculty has about 50 members, four of whom are women, she said.

 

Women help one another

Farmingdale State College also has four women in an engineering faculty of 40.

"It's an uphill climb for us and other institutions to find women faculty," said president Hubert Keen, who pointed to stiff competition for qualified doctorate-holding women engineers, because they are so few and private-sector demand for them is high.

In the fall semester, Farmingdale professors and students started a chapter of the Society of Women Engineers to support one another. Organizers were nearly unable to get the 10 members required to start the club.

This year, there are more than five times the number of men -- 1,365 -- than women -- 261 -- enrolled in the engineering school.

Bahar Zoghi, one of Farmingdale's engineering professors and the mother of two girls, said her female students excel and graduate at the same rate as their male counterparts. Getting them to enroll in the first place is the challenge, she said, noting that the young women who gravitate toward engineering studies often have strong role models, such as a father or mother, working in the field.

"We need to grab them. And it must start young. Very young. High school is already too late," Zoghi said.

CORRECTION: Rita Sobhy, a sophomore at New York Institute of Technology, graduated from MacArthur High School in Levittown. An earlier version of the story gave the wrong name for the high school.

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