School celebrates 10 years of success enrolling women in engineering studies

For the tenth straight year, more than 30% of incoming graduates to the Lyle School of Engineering at SMU are women, which is well above the 20% average of American colleges and universities. The Lyle School is also involved in local and state-wide programs to attract younger students to engineering.

By Kim Cobb December 3, 2015

Women have averaged more than 30% of incoming undergraduates in the Lyle School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Tex., since 2005, exceeding the national average of about 20% in American colleges and universities. For fall 2015, 100 out of 295 first-year students enrolled as engineering pre-majors at SMU are women—almost 34% of the total.

Last year women made up 37.4% of Lyle students receiving undergraduate degrees.

"Not only are we recruiting strong women, we are accomplishing the more difficult challenge of retaining these students," said Lyle Dean Marc Christensen. "But we’ve got to do more. Are we bringing the best engineers to the world’s problems? Not if women and members of minority groups feel discouraged for any reason about pursuing engineering as a field of study or as a career."

Christensen said that they’ve maintained their 30% average by making it a culture rather than a program. "For example, if you walk into our Deason Innovation Gym to watch our students at work on an engineering design challenge, you’ll see a mix of men and women working together seamlessly."

Success in attracting and keeping women in the Lyle School is less about percentages and more about all students feeling that they are part of something meaningful, Christensen said.

To gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding these efforts, the school’s Caruth Institute for Engineering Education is examining the potential for research that would help provide answers for what works in recruiting women and underrepresented minorities into university engineering programs, as well as what types of programs and classroom approaches engage them.

"I’m intrigued with understanding more about the culture for women at SMU and pushing in directions that help us build on those successes," said Jonathan Stolk, executive director of the Lyle School’s Caruth Institute. 

Stolk holds a joint appointment as a professor in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He joined SMU-Lyle after working as a professor at Olin College of Engineering, where he enjoyed the unusual experience of co-creating an entirely new engineering school. He joined Olin in 2001, before the college had buildings, programs, or students. With faculty and student partners, Stolk engaged in prototyping new curricular ideas and establishing a new learning culture.

Organizations across the country have taken on the challenge of sparking an interest in math and science among younger girls, knowing that doors are shut to possible STEM careers long before girls begin applying to colleges. At the Lyle School, for example, a variety of summer camps for girls offer fun activities for middle school and high school girls ranging from robotics to forensic science.

Message to grade-school youth

The Lyle School also has an active student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which is heavily involved in taking the message of engineering for women to Dallas-area schoolgirls through volunteer science and engineering outreach activities. By visiting elementary schools and co-hosting with the Dallas Section of SWE programs like the "Design Your World" STEM Conference for Girls, the college women are hoping to help put the younger girls on the same path they have chosen.

At "Design Your World," 150 girls from around North Texas, met at SMU Nov. 14 for activities that "teach by doing" the science behind activities such as making polymer jewelry and twinkling, electronic bracelets, computer programming, and indoor rollercoaster racing.

Lyle student Rachel Ann Sheppard, 23, who will graduate from SMU’s Lyle School in May 2016 with a master’s degree in operations research, was there to help. She enjoyed the volunteer outreach activities like "Design Your World" because it gave her the opportunity to help young girls connect engineering to their own lives and see the opportunities available.

"If it’s a smaller group, we introduce ourselves and explain our disciplines and try to relate that to something they can understand," said Sheppard, who is president of the Lyle School’s student section of SWE. "I say, ‘Do you know what people in my major do? We help your food get to the grocery store in the most efficient way.’ And they say, ‘That sounds really cool.’"

Sheppard grew up in a suburb of Houston adjacent to the Johnson Space Center. She went to school with astronauts’ kids and had a natural aptitude for numbers, earning a near perfect score on the math segment of the SAT.

For younger girls who can’t tap a neighborhood space center for inspiration, Sheppard thinks outreach programs that show girls how to build robots or learn fun computer programming can be an eye-opener. "I’m still surprised myself to find out how many applications there are for engineering," she said.

The Lyle School will be celebrating its 10 years of substantial enrollment of women throughout the current academic year through various programs and events. The Lyle School’s Student Engineering Joint Council sponsored a working lunch Nov. 13, to share best practices that have resulted in successes for the Society for Women Engineers.

In the spring, the student chapter of SWE also will partner with the Hart Center for Engineering Leadership in the Lyle School to produce the annual "She Networks, She Wins" program as well as a Women in Lyle faculty and staff panel discussion.

Southern Methodist University (SMU) 

Lyle School of Engineering 

– Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, See more stories about STEM education linked below.