When Becky Bittle, a senior lecturer in the engineering department, earned her bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma State University about 30 years ago, she was the only woman in a class of more than 100 engineering majors.In 2005, women comprised 20.3 percent of undergraduate engineering majors nationally, up from about 3 percent that were enrolled when Bittle graduated, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Though TCU’s engineering department is about 4 percent below this national average, Bittle said, programs such as the Society of Women Engineers work to support the interests of college women at TCU.
“It’s really hard to imagine yourself as being something if you don’t see others like you there,” Bittle said.
She said the Society of Women Engineers, a national organization with a chapter at TCU, helps maintain women’s enrollment because it gives students a group to identify with. Bittle said she enjoys watching students attend the Society of Women Engineers’ national conference each year because, for the first time, they are surrounded by 3,000 women who are also working to become engineers.
Students at the conference have the opportunity to interview with more than 150 companies, something she said, “doesn’t happen at any other convention.”
TCU’s chapter also works to introduce adolescent girls to engineering, encouragement that Bittle said is key in honing young women’s interests in math and science.
Undergraduate students recently helped 200 fourth and fifth grade girl scouts earn their science badges while teaching them some basic engineering skills, Bittle said.
The students do anything from working with electrical circuits, to learning the basics of an engineering computer program, to making polymers, or “GAK as they like to call it,” she said.
Walt Williamson, chair of the department of engineering, also said he does not think women are encouraged in math and science as much as men.
“I think our son got more encouragement in those areas,” he said, adding that his son became an engineer while his daughter became a teacher. “But she definitely had the capability to succeed in those areas.”
Despite the low enrollment of women engineering majors at TCU, Williamson said four of the past seven outstanding graduate awards have been given to women, which he said proves women clearly have the capability to compete in the field.
TCU’s engineering program offers emphasis’ in electrical and mechanical engineering, two fields that nationally are comprised of about 14 percent women, Williamson said.
He said nationally, the number of women interested in biomedical and chemical engineering continues to increase and that TCU does not reflect these trends because of the types of engineering offered here.
TCU’s engineering program was started in 1992 and is still relatively small, Williamson said, but said the small classes help prepare students for the job market – regardless of sex.
He said companies such as Lockheed Martin Corp. look for communication skills, adaptability and flexibility, teamwork and problem solving skills.
“Given everyone has good technical skills,” he said. “These are the things I think students here have a better opportunity to acquire.”
Lori Shannon, a senior engineering major with an electrical emphasis, said she has always enjoyed math and science and came to TCU because of the smaller class sizes.
Shannon will be one of three girls to graduate in December out of a class of 20, and while she said there are not many women in her field, “(she) doesn’t think women are scared away at all.”
“Girls that end up doing (engineering) are of a different breed,” Shannon said.
When she looks for employment at engineering companies, Shannon said she assumes she will be one of few women.
“I think being a woman gives you an edge,” she said, “though you still have to be qualified.”
Williamson said he thinks there is still a perception that engineers work alone in a back room all day, and that while this image is slowly being transformed, he said there is no quick way to increase women’s enrollment in the engineering department.