Since becoming the inaugural director of Penn’s Advancing Women in Engineering Program two years ago, Michele Grab’s mission has been simple: recruit and retain female students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Through dozens of initiatives geared toward potential and current women engineering students, the program steadily has been making a difference. The School’s Class of 2013 is 37 percent female—its highest percentage ever.
“It’s an exciting time for engineering,” says Grab, who was a journalism and English major in college. “It’s certainly a major that, with everything that’s going on in the economy, more people are thinking about. The Dean always says, ‘It’s a great time to be an engineer,’ and I think our students are doing pretty amazing things. It’s really fun to watch. I hope that what we do makes that possible for a lot more women in particular.”
The Current chatted with Grab to find out more about her job, the program, and women in the field of engineering.
Q. Tell me about the Advancing Women in Engineering Program.
A. On Oct. 1 it will be two years since we started. The program was funded by a mechanical engineering alumna who gave us the funds to recruit and retain women in engineering. That is our very broad charge.
We do a number of different programs to recruit and retain students. We have outreach programs geared toward little kids. Penn GEMS is a weeklong middle school camp. They come to campus and do different engineering labs. The whole idea is to show them what engineering is like so hopefully they’ll want to study more math and science and get into engineering. We’d love it if they’d come to Penn.
We’ve done things with the Girl Scouts, and we’ve gone to middle school career days. We also do things with students who are thinking about coming here. I will meet with them while they’re on campus, thinking about whether they should come to Penn.
Our first big program of the year is a pre-orientation for Penn students. Ours is for incoming women. This year we had 51 students who moved in four days early. They did everything from meeting with professors, alums and current students, to getting to know each other. The idea being that we want to create a community among these women.
We also do things throughout the year for our current students. Some of it is social. There are departments within engineering that have lots of women. Bioengineering is nearly 50 percent women, whereas mechanical has 17 or 18 percent women. There’s a large disparity.
Q. What is your role as its director?
A. My role is to coordinate all the different interests. It’s a faculty, staff and student initiative, so we want to make sure everyone is on the same page. I also work with some of the student organizations on campus.
Q. How many students does it serve?
A. About 30 percent of our undergraduate population is women. That’s about 500. At the graduate level, it’s 26 or 27 percent. We obviously don’t reach every student every year. Last year we did 45 programs over the course of the year. We try to mix it up and do different things, providing opportunities for people who want them.
Q. Why do so few women become engineers?
A. Women tend to skew more toward bio and chemical engineering, as do a lot of students, because that’s what they know in high school. That seems to more disproportionately affect women rather then men.
The research says that the No. 1 indicator of whether anyone studies engineering is if they have a parent or family member who is an engineer, or if they have a really good math or science teacher who recognizes their talent and suggests engineering to them. A lot of 17- or 18-year-olds don’t know what engineering is. It’s one of the very few majors you have to decide on before you get here. It’s a special kind of kid that makes that decision early on.
The second reason women tend to come to engineering is because of what they can do with it—the end goal. They want to make prosthetic limbs or want to work on a water filtration system. Men tend to come to engineering because they like to take stuff apart and put it back together. They come to the end goal later on.
If you liked to take toasters apart as a 10-year-old, someone might say to you, ‘Hey, you should be an engineer.’ Maybe if you’re just good at math and science no one suggests that to you.
Q. What would you consider a success? If 50 percent of engineering students were women?
A. If I had all the answers I could probably be a rich lady. Thirty percent is not a bad number; the national average is 20 percent. But we could always do more. I don’t know what the magic number is. While 50 percent is nice, I don’t know that we’ll see that number.
Q. The program just received a $15,000 grant from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. What will that money be used for?
A. To do a program for guidance counselors and math teachers in high schools, helping them to be more encouraging about computer science. For the last couple years, the Computer Science Department independently has sponsored Women in Computer Science Day. They’ve invited high school students in the area to come for the day and hear about what computer science is. That has been really successful, so we’ve decided that it can be more than a one-shot deal.
Q. What’s your own academic background?
A. I am not an engineer. I actually was a journalism and English major in college, and I have a master’s in education. I worked at Carnegie Mellon University on gender-related programs. I came to Penn five years ago as a House Dean in Stouffer College House. I also was an academic advisor in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Q. What did your role as a House Dean entail? Did you enjoy working closely with students?
A. You are in charge of the staff for the building. You do programs and events for the students. You do judicial sanctions when needed. You’re all things to all people. With the students, you do everything from scolding them to holding their hands when they get hurt.
I lived in the building. It’s a really nice community of students committed to the house and passionate about participating in programs. The students always made it interesting to live there. When a student is chatting with you in their pajamas at two in the morning, that’s a different relationship than meeting with them in an office. Students feel comfortable sharing areas of their lives with you. It’s very unique and special.
Q. Are you a scientific or numbers person?
A. I could have never been an engineer. I am somewhat in awe of the students I work with. It’s just different sides of the brain. In my job I think it’s important for me to understand what it is they do, and the challenges they face, so I can be helpful to them. I spend a lot of time learning about the different majors and curriculums. My boss always says if I don’t understand it, some 17-year-old kid is not going to understand it. It’s always an education for me to figure out what it is that all my students are studying.
Originally published on September 17, 2009