On May 23 of this year, Yale awarded 176 degrees to engineering and computer science students. Fifty-nine of these degrees — just over one-third — went to women. The percentage of female engineers in Yale’s graduating class is and has been well above the national average of 19.2 percent; only once in the last 10 years has Yale fallen beneath the national average.
Two weeks after Yale’s commencement, Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering conferred degrees upon 119 undergraduates. Sixty-four of those degrees — 54 percent — went to female students, marking the first time an American research university has awarded more than half of its engineering degrees to women.
Yale’s gender imbalance is more conspicuous in some engineering programs than others. The University has awarded just 32 computer science degrees to women in the last 10 years — just 13.9 percent of total computer science degrees in that period, according to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research. Similarly, the interdepartmental electrical engineering/computer science major has awarded eight degrees to women in the last 10 years — less than 23.5 percent of its total degrees.
This disparity does not exist in environmental engineering; in fact, more women have received degrees in the field historically. Over the last four years, OIR data indicate that Yale has awarded 20 degrees in environmental engineering to women and just 12 to men.
However, Yale School of Engineering & Applied Sciences Deputy Dean Vincent Wilczynski pointed out that the numbers are slowly equalizing.
“Part of this discipline correlation is due to a number of admissions-directed factors — [for example] larger numbers of STEM interested applicants/admits — and I believe some of the educational shifts to open-ended problem solving and design-oriented courses help retain all students, including women, in SEAS,” he said.
Similar numbers for Dartmouth were not available, as students in the Thayer School of Engineering concentrate in a particular discipline in engineering but do not major in it, Thayer Dean Joseph Helble explained.
MAKING STEM MORE APPROACHABLE
According to Yale engineering majors and Dartmouth engineering faculty, the two schools similarly confront the challenges of students being confronted with intimidating, complex information head-on. By avoiding a sink-or-swim approach, both schools eliminate some of the barriers that create the so-called “leaky pipeline,” a metaphor often used to explain why women drop out of STEM fields faster than men at all stages of careers.
Yale students interviewed said that the professors teaching introductory level classes were cognizant of the unique challenges facing underclassmen venturing into STEM classes, including the stark contrast with high school curricula. Their overall understanding nature makes success easier for women, who have been conditioned to believe that STEM is not a field accepting of women.
“The rigors of intro STEM classes can be a real shock, and I found it incredibly helpful when professors acknowledged the challenges of their material and told us that poor performance, particularly in the beginning, should not be seen as a failure or a sign that STEM was not for us,” said Emily Barnes ’17, an environmental engineering major.
Kendrick Umstattd ’19, an electrical engineering/computer science major, concurred, adding that one-on-one advising, both within and beyond SEAS, is immensely supportive for students starting in STEM.
Still, there is some pressure for students interested in engineering to commit to a discipline early on. A 2010 study conducted by the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that students who enter engineering fields later in their undergraduate careers are less likely to finish a degree in that field.
Due in part to the high number of required classes — at Yale, the more intensive Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology-accredited Bachelor of Science requires as many as 18 classes plus nine prerequisites, and a Bachelor of Science in engineering science involves somewhere between 10 and 12 technical term courses on top of six to 10 prerequisites — Yale encourages students seeking a Bachelor of Science in a STEM field to declare a major during sophomore year, preferably in the fall.
Umstattd and Barnes, both of whom said they developed an interest in their fields of study as sophomores in high school, pointed out that many STEM prerequisites overlap, allowing students more time before committing to a specific track.
“The founding motto of SEAS is ‘breadth, depth and purpose,’” Umstattd said. “The freshman year or intro classes touch on many topics, so they provide the breadth.”
She added that shopping period is also helpful in this regard.
As Dartmouth’s course enrollment takes place during the preceding term, the school lacks a comparable shopping period. It is, however, on the quarter system — a structural difference that Helble speculated could allow for more experimentation.
Yale also offers a “spectrum of engineering degrees,” Wilczynski pointed out, allowing students to more closely tailor their degree to their interests
MENTORSHIP AND SPECIALIZATION
Helble said Dartmouth’s success in attracting and retaining female engineers can be chalked up to a variety of factors, including an understanding of the importance of mentorship and a flexible curriculum that does not mandate specialization.
Yale practices these elements, but often to a lesser degree. Multiple students praised Yale’s mentorship opportunities for women in STEM, citing Women in Science at Yale, Girls’ Science Investigation and Yale’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, three campus groups that focus on empowering women in STEM on Yale’s campus and in New Haven. But, unlike Dartmouth, Yale asks its engineering majors to narrow their field of focus, requiring engineering students to focus in no more than two programs — biomedical, chemical, electrical, environmental or mechanical engineering/materials science — before the end of sophomore year.
This is perhaps the most significant distinction between the two schools. Derived from the idea that engineering is a set of tools rather than a field, Helble said Dartmouth wants its students to understand there are many ways to study and practice engineering.
About a decade ago, Helble explained, the school began taking a hard look at demographic data, particularly the gender, ethnic and racial composition of engineering students relative to the student body as a whole, in an effort to bring the two closer together.
“As the numbers of women started to grow over the past three or four years, I’ve begun to speak openly about possibility of reaching gender equality,” Helble said. “We recognize it’s something important for the school, for its culture and its community.”
But the process had actually begun almost 50 years earlier, when UCLA engineering professor Myron Tribus assumed the deanship of the Thayer School in 1961.
Tribus, renowned as much for his work on organizational behavior as he is for his research on thermodynamics, decided that engineering ought to focus on interdisciplinary project-based learning, so he eliminated engineering tracks. In doing so, he permanently altered the Thayer School’s underlying philosophy. Calling it an “integrated, systems-based engineering curriculum within a single department of engineering sciences,” Tribus shifted the focus from specialization to experimentation.
Dartmouth has been building on that for the last 50 years, Helble said.
“There’s been a longstanding emphasis on making entry to engineering [as] barrier-free as possible,” Helble said. “One of the things we do that I think is beneficial is students at Dartmouth concentrate in a particular discipline in engineering but don’t major in it. Rather than identifying with a discipline, we want our students to be interested in drawing from a set of tools.”
“This helps many kind of engineers and makes the creative elements of engineering come out,” he added. “Saying up front ‘We want you to explore and fail’ removes perceived barriers. That’s helped tremendously with student retention. There isn’t a single path, and there are many possible outcomes.”