Virginia Tech is struggling to maintain female and underrepresented minority enrollment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors on its campus of nearly 30,000 students.
Tech, which was ranked fifth in the country for both its engineering and computer science programs by the Wall Street Journal in 2010, fails to reach the national average for females and minorities in most STEM degree programs.
According to the American Society for Engineering Education, 15.8 percent of Tech graduates receiving a degree in engineering are female, lower than the national average of 17.8 percent.
Within the College of Science, the discrepancy between males and females reverses, with females obtaining 535 degrees in 2010, compared to males obtaining 468 degrees. However, only 28 percent of females went on to gain a master’s degree, compared to 51 percent of males, according to Tech’s Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness.
Furthermore, the gaps between the achievements of underrepresented minorities and Caucasians are vast. According to the OIRE, only 61 underrepresented minority students gained a bachelor’s degree in 2010, while 942 Caucasians students obtained the same degree.
These numbers differ within the College of Engineering, according to OIRE data. Females received only 180 degrees, while males received 1,002 degrees. The deficit was even larger with minority groups and those not part of a minority: Underrepresented minorities achieved 68 degrees, while Caucasians received 1,114 degrees in 2010.
Beate Schmittmann, physics department head at Tech, sees this problem reflected within her own department, in which only about 22 percent of bachelor’s degrees go to females.
Greg Adel, department head for mining and minerals engineering at Tech, faces the same problems. Tech has the largest mining engineering program in the country, with 25 percent of all mining engineers nationwide graduating from Tech. However, females represent only 14 percent of the department, he says.
Despite small numbers, Adel has had luck with female enrollment in the past. In 2003, female enrollment increased from approximately 12 percent to 20 percent, but fell to 12 percent again in late 2006. Adel is unsure of the cause for this increase, but is eager for a repeat and confident it will happen again with the addition of female faculty members.
William Lewis, vice president for diversity at Tech, believes the lack of diversity in these majors can be traced back to pre-college education.
“Underrepresentation in STEM disciplines comes from students that have not been encouraged to go into those majors in secondary school,” Lewis said, “especially in low-performing school systems.”
Schmittmann said the exact cause of this problem is difficult to pinpoint, but she said she believes the lack of role models in the major and in the field is one issue.
“It is true that not having a lot of women to look to, if you’re thinking about the major, makes a difference,” Schmittmann said.
Scott Midkiff, electrical and computer engineering department head at Tech, agreed with Schmittmann’s observations.
“Young women can’t look to older women in their neighborhood or in their churches that are engineers,” Midkiff said.
Schmittmann added that, generally, females like to believe they are making a difference in the world. However, women often have a difficult time relating this concept to the STEM majors.
“Physics can explain how people can make a difference,” Schmittmann said, “like developing medical technology that helps on a much larger scale.”
Stacy Branham, a Ph.D. candidate for computer science at Tech, believes there are a variety of issues that lead to a lack of females in STEM degree programs.
“It is a very complex issue, so we can’t point to one certain thing,” Branham said.
One issue, Branham said, is the culture created by professors. In her experience, Branham has found that males are encouraged to teach themselves informally by “tinkering” with technology. Females, on the other hand, often only have a more formal introduction much later in the classroom.
Branham also believes that female role models are valuable assets in computer science. She pointed out that her own role model, though, was her father, who is a computer engineer.
“If you don’t see women performing at the highest levels in your field, you think of it as a man’s job subconsciously,” Branham said. She said if someone asked her to draw a picture of a successful scientist, she would probably draw a man.