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On the brink: community colleges are striving to engage more women in science and engineering fields--and America's status as a world leader in the sciences just might depend upon their success.

What do silver tea sets, fine china and dainty finger sandwiches have in common with science, technology, engineering and math? Plenty, according to educators and students at Florence-Darlington Technical College in Florence, S.C.

"The point we are trying to make," explained college administrator Elaine Craft, "is that you can still be female and study engineering. We're saying you can be female, be an engineer, and not have to give up your softer side."

Recently, Craft and a handful of other administrators, faculty, and female science and engineering technology students draped fluffy feathered boas around their necks, plopped fancy hats on their heads, powdered their noses and went to a tea party to celebrate that a woman's decision to pursue the sciences doesn't mean forsaking femininity.

Though whimsical, the tea party at Florence-Darlington hits on a serious subject: America's science and engineering labor force, according to the National Science Foundation, faces an "emerging and critical problem."

The United States is "in a long-distance race to retain its essential global advantage in (science and engineering) human resources and sustain our world leadership in science and technology," according to National Science Board Chairman Dr. Warren M. Washington.

Community colleges, as the fastest-growing sector of higher education and well-known for their work-force training programs, are in a good position to help reverse the shrinking trend in the science and engineering labor force.

And given that women compose 45 percent of the U.S. work force but account for only 12 percent of science and engineering jobs, recruiting more women into these fields and working to ensure their success seems like an obvious win-win strategy.

Raising Awareness

Fortunately, the dearth of women in science, technology, engineering and math--also known as STEM--studies is garnering increased attention from educators, policy-makers and businesses.

Community colleges are stepping forward with a host of novel programs and courses to reach out to women, many of whom land well-paying jobs with two-year degrees. Others who launch their studies at community colleges go on to obtain bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and doctorates.

"When students with a dream of an engineering career are juggling financial and family challenges, community colleges often offer a cost-effective and more flexible approach to the first few years of engineering study," noted Betty Shanahan, an electrical engineer and executive director of the Society of Women Engineers.

The programs benefit many, including women and their families, businesses and industries, and society as a whole.

So just how extensive are community-college efforts to recruit and retain more women?

That's tough to measure, partly because programs tend not to differentiate between women and minorities, referring to both collectively as underrepresented, explained Dr. Vanessa Smith Morest, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

CCRC issued a report last year on the largest of the NSF-funded programs to increase STEM study at community colleges, although it didn't focus on gender. Smith Morest said the program has raised awareness of the need to recruit and retain more women, but there needs to be more specific research about its gender impact.

One student who has shown that community-college programs are helping women expand their horizons is Sherrie Hoffman. Hoffman, who helped organize Florence-Darlington's tea party, joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school in South Carolina. But injuries she sustained during training cut short her military career, and on returning home, the only work she could find was in fast-food restaurants.

"I realized I wasn't making any money, so I decided to go back to school," she said.

With the Veterans Benefits Administration helping with tuition costs, Hoffman, 25, landed at Florence-Darlington. She learned to do mechanical and architectural drawing, including mastering elements of computer-aided design. She said she feels good about becoming a competent professional with a decent income, and her husband is pleased with her choice.

Furthermore, Hoffman knows she can tread down a number of paths in the future, including one she's considering most seriously--becoming an architect after she finishes at Florence-Darlington,

Hoffman said she'd never considered a future in technology.

"It was a whole field I never looked into before," Hoffman said. "I guess I had passed something like that off as a guy kind of thing."

A Bicoastal Endeavor

In Washington, D.C., Dr. Jong-on Hahm is a neuroscientist who directs the Committee on Women in Science and Engineering, a National Research Council committee charged with coordinating, monitoring and advocating action to boost female participation in science and engineering. Its focus is largely four-year colleges and universities.

Aside from her CWSE role, Hahm also serves as a trustee at Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Md. She said community colleges are often the gate through which women enter STEM studies.

Hahm said women who choose community colleges tend to do so because they offer training for nontraditional jobs, including jobs as technicians.

Indeed, many college efforts to recruit and retain women in STEM fields focus on technology rather than life sciences, simply because that's where the need is.

Dr. Susan Hixson of the NSF noted that today, the number of women graduating with either bachelor's degrees or associate's degrees in biology exceeds that of men.

"It's a huge switch over the past 10 to 15 years," Hixson said.

But in technology and in engineering--at both the associate and baccalaureate levels--women are behind at rates of more than four to one, according to "Science and Engineering Indicators 2004," an NSF publication.

Three thousand miles away, in Alameda, Calif., Donna Milgram is the executive director of the Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science, a nonprofit organization she founded 10 years ago to provide training to integrate women into male-dominated careers.

One of the organization's key programs has been its WomenTech Project, which won a three-year NSF grant. Situated at three community colleges--the Community College of Rhode Island, North Harris College in Texas and the College of Alameda--the project devised strategies for recruiting and retaining more women in trades, technology and science studies and looked for ways to get business and industry involved.

The project was particularly successful at the Community College of Rhode Island, Milgram said.

"We doubled the number of women in underrepresented programs, from 39 students to 80 in two years," she said.

Women have enrolled in such fields as electronics, telecommunications, and computer and networking technology.

In nearby Fall River, Mass., Bristol Community College addresses the challenge early on in girls' lives, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the NSF, among others.

A Tech Prep program, Bristol's Women in Technology is a three-pronged approach involving women at the college, local high schools, and business and industry.

The business and industry component means project-based learning.

"We want young women to experience the world of junior engineers by going through various engineering phases and produce an item that can be used by a company," explained Ted Boudria, director of the Bristol Tech Prep Consortium.

Starting with a dozen female students in 1997, the program now features 55 women working on five projects for Texas Instruments, along with projects for two other firms.

"The college provided the muscle, and the companies provide scholarship money and engineers to train the students," Boudria said. "The girls are not treated as students, but as junior engineers."

As for reaching into the high schools, Boudria said it's crucial to recruit young women before they buy into the stereotype that science and math aren't for them.

"The whole idea of addressing nontraditional careers really has to filter through the schools beginning in the primary grades, and it has to permeate into the homes, too. So many jobs of the future will require technology skills and training. I think a lot of young women have to be informed that engineering is not a male program alone. You can be nurturing and be a great engineer as well," Boudria said.

Seventeen-year-old Shawna Tremblay, a senior at nearby Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School, is earning credit at Bristol.

Participating last year in the Women in Technology summer Camp--and now with the Texas Instruments effort--she worked on building an alternating vibration box for an airline manufacturer that will be used to test and protect circuit breakers.

"We had to make sure the box was airtight and that it could withstand so many PSIs (pounds per inch) and protect the circuit breakers at the same time," she explained.

Once she graduates high school next spring, she plans to enroll full time at Bristol and transfer to the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth to study electrical engineering.

"Before, I thought because I was a girl, I had to be a nurse or some other more traditionally female career," she said. "But when I explored the shop here, everything just changed."

Boudria said more proof of WIT's success lies in a follow-up study completed two years ago to determine how many women had stayed in the field, either in the work force or in higher education.

"We were hovering about 60 percent," he said.

For their efforts, Bristol won an $840,000 NSF grant to develop a computer-integrated manufacturing program for nontraditional students. The school also has been recruited nationally and internationally to share details of its program.

"We just got back from Beijing, China, where we were asked to present the program to the Ministry of Education," Boudria said.

Going Places

Florence-Darlington's program is an "Advanced Technological Center" and is funded largely by the NSF. NSF's Dr. Elizabeth J. Teles said that with 31 centers--five national centers, 12 resource centers and 14 regional centers--and about 250 projects nationwide, the Advanced Technological Education program is the foundation's largest effort to increase STEM study for all community-college students, regardless of gender.

"The whole program is to increase the technician work force, but we have been doing a good job at getting more women and minorities," Teles said. According to evaluation data, "of the 31,880 community-college students directly involved in ATE projects where gender was reported, 10,344, or 32.4 percent, were women. At the secondary school level, 2,722 out of 7,242 students in ATE classes, or 37.6 percent, were women."

Another major NSF effort is the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program, now in its third year. Like the advanced technology program, STEP doesn't require an emphasis on female participation, but it is making an impact, said Dr. Susan Hixson, STEP's program director.

Generally speaking, STEP programs "tend to support more active learning in the classroom, rather than lecturing" and other more learner-friendly approaches, Hixson said. Research has found that such teaching tends to be most effective for women and minorities, which supporters hope will make a difference in enrolling and keeping women.

Not surprisingly, Hixson said, such teaching also tends to be more effective for male students. One of the many programs STEP has provided funding for is at Tidewater Community College in southeastern Virginia.

Mary Pat Liggio, coordinator of the Women's Center there, said key to her college's winning a $600,000 NSF grant to recruit more women for science and engineering is that the plan can be readily shared and copied.

"The people at the NSF tell us that it is replicable and therefore worth the investment," Liggio said.

In a nutshell, Tidewater's program targets bright women at risk of dropping out and works to help them earn an associate's degree and transfer to a four-year program within three years.

The Tidewater program, which got started this month, provides students with intense academic advising, intervention counseling, extensive mentoring opportunities, career counseling and stipends to offset the costs of books and tuition.

Tidewater officials expect the grant to allow the school to increase the number of female graduates by 100 and touch the lives of many more. They say the program is particularly important because the drop in the number of women in science, technology, engineering and math courses has been double the drop for men.

Training Teachers, Too

Tidewater's Liggio said a number of programs targeting women direct their attention to faculty training and development. That often means helping instructors to understand that students employ a variety of different learning styles, an element missing from many STEM programs at two-year and four-year institutions over the years.

Such recognition is also a big part of the success at Florence-Darlington.

"We address learning styles, and do a lot of collaborative and cooperative learning," said Elaine Craft, who is director of the college's ATE center.

"Students work in teams in the classrooms, and our faculty work in interdisciplinary teams that coordinate learning for students. We have classrooms that model the workplace, and students learn math, physics and communications in the context of real-world settings," she added.

Such a shift in engineering education also is taking place at four-year schools across the country.

ABET Inc., the independent agency that accredits college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering and technology throughout the United States, has established new standards that all four-year engineering schools must adopt by 2007 to keep their accreditation.

Those standards require schools to tailor their teaching and training to reflect the same hands-on approach community colleges are taking.

The new standards, known as Engineering Criteria 2000, emphasize team and collaborative work, improved communication skills and project-based learning in real-world settings.
Studying Science

Recipients of science and engineering associate's degrees, 2001

 Technologies
 All
 S&E Sciences Engineering Engineering

All degrees 82,102 36,272 1,791 35,413
 Female 27,991 17,651 297 5,666
 Male 54,111 18,621 1,494 29,747
U.S citizen/
 permanent resident 80,232 35,285 1,695 34,742
 Female 27,257 17,139 273 5,523
 Male 52,975 18,146 1,422 29,219
White 55,470 22,768 1,202 24,999
 Female 17,718 10,456 182 3,826
 Male 37,752 12,312 1,020 21,173
Asian/Pacific
 Islander 4,683 2,372 130 1,725
 Female 1,669 1,124 25 256
 Male 3,014 1,248 105 1,469
Black 8,379 4,247 104 3,372
 Female 3,520 2,465 15 712
 Male 4,859 1,782 89 2,660
Hispanic 8,109 3,945 186 3,369
 Female 3,005 2,164 32 491
 Male 5,104 1,781 154 2,878
American Indian/
 Alaska native 807 485 16 253
 Female 378 290 3 52
 Male 429 195 13 201
Other or unknown
 race/ethnicity 2,784 1,468 57 1,024
 Female 967 640 16 186
 Male 1,817 828 41 838
Temporary resident 1,870 987 96 671
 Female 734 512 24 143
 Male 1,136 475 72 528

 Technologies Interdis-
 ciplinary/Other
 Science Other Sciences

All degrees 1,233 940 6,453
 Female 499 110 3,768
 Male 734 830 2,685
U.S citizen/
 permanent resident 1,213 940 6,357
 Female 490 110 3,722
 Male 723 830 2,635
White 871 745 4,885
 Female 341 81 2,832
 Male 530 664 2,053
Asian/Pacific
 Islander 35 5 416
 Female 20 2 242
 Male 15 3 174
Black 155 125 376
 Female 75 16 237
 Male 80 109 139
Hispanic 125 16 468
 Female 42 4 272
 Male 83 12 196
American Indian/
 Alaska native 9 3 41
 Female 4 1 28
 Male 5 2 13
Other or unknown
 race/ethnicity 18 46 171
 Female 8 6 111
 Male 10 40 60
Temporary resident 20 0 96
 Female 9 0 46
 Male 11 0 50

SOURCE: THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION

The Choice Schools

Science and engineering associate's degrees awarded by
leading institutions for women, 1997-2001

Community College of the Air Force 2,306
Ivy Tech State College Central Office 2,182
Keiser College of Technology 2,136
Baker College of Flint 1,798
CUNY LaGuardia Community College 1,544
Riverside Community College 1,411
San Jacinto College 1,303
CUNY New York City Technical College 1,146
Sacramento City College 1,116
Ricks College 1,077
Columbus State Community College 1,053
City Colleges of Chicago 1,052
Madison Area Technical College 934
Cuyahoga Community College 918
Wallace Community College, Hanceville 914
Sinclair Community College 904
Illinois Eastern Community College 893
Moraine Valley Community College 892
Sanford Brown College 888
Delaware Tech and Community College, all campuses 878
Texas State Tech College, all campuses 876
Henry Ford Community College 873
Belleville Area College 862
Robert Morris College, Chicago 848
Mt. San Jacinto College 846

SOURCE: THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION

Small Pieces of the Pie

Men and women employed in
science and engineering fields,
April 2003

Total (Science & Engineering)

Men: 78%
Women: 22%

Science

Men: 68%
Women: 32%

Engineering

Men: 89%
Women: 11%

SOURCE: THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION

Note: Table made from pie chart.
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Author:Finken, Dee Anne
Publication:Community College Week
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 25, 2004
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