Womengineers Article


 Dow Jones & Rutgers

748 words
22 April 2001
The Virginian-Pilot & The Ledger-Star
(Copyright 2001)

Forty-six percent of today's work force is women.

Yet only 20 percent of today's engineers are women.

Sixty percent of Old Dominion University's students are women.

But only 14 percent of them are enrolled in the school's engineering program.

To address this imbalance, more than 300 young women, elementary school age and up, convened at ODU on Saturday for the first annual WOMENGINEERS Day, an event aimed at recruiting women into engineering and keeping them there.

Held at ODU's College of Engineering and Technology, the event had a two-pronged purpose: to show attendees careers available in engineering, and to fight stereotypes that keep women from the field.

Attendees spent the morning visiting representatives from engineering societies and regional firms, touring

the department's facilities and taking part in a panel discussion about why there aren't more women engineers.

It's certainly not because they're unqualified, said Osama A. Kandil, who heads ODU's Department of Aerospace Engineering and has taught there for 22 years.

"I don't see any difference between men and women," he said, referring to his students' ability.

But Kandil knows that view doesn't always prevail in society, a point driven home to him when his daughter was 3. She returned from nursery school one day and announced she was either going to be a nurse or a secretary when she grew up.

"I said `Whoa, Whoa!! Why a nurse? Why can't you be a doctor?' "

Because her teacher said so, said her daughter. Kandil promptly headed to her school for a conference.

Kandil blames the lack of women in science and tech-related fields on just such antiquated thinking. His opinion was shared by fellow panelist Julie Dodd, director of the ODU Women's Center.

"Girls as young as 2 or 3 are aware of occupational stereotyping," she said. Furthermore, years later, as these girls progress through college, their self-esteem tends to drop as their male peers' rises.

To help address this, Dodd and fellow panelist Keith Williamson, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at ODU, are applying for a grant in partnership with TCC and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium.

They want to develop a women's institute for science and engineering, which will focus on the recruitment and retention of women engineering students, starting in high school.

Williamson, who as an undergraduate engineering student was one of two blacks in his class, knows the difficulties women engineers face.

"The isolation is what gets you, not the course work," he said. "When people feel isolated, they want to leave."

Rayna Terry, 18, of Portsmouth, attended with her mother, Monica. A senior at I.C. Norcom, Terry's love of engineering began in the sixth grade, when she received LEGOs and K'NEX for Christmas. She was hooked instantly. While her two older brothers played in the yard with green plastic Army men, she designed countless contraptions.

Terry's passion led her to enter science fairs and invention conventions. This fall, she'll be a freshman in engineering at ODU.

Monica Terry said her daughter's success is a direct result of her assertive personality.

"She makes sure her questions are going to get answered," she said.

Rayna Terry said she plans to take advantage of the school's support structure - "mentoring, tutoring, anything to help." And, with memories of LEGOs no doubt still fresh in her mind, she's leaning toward civil engineering.

For Erica Ammentorp, 12, of Newport News, the best path to success may be to watch her mother, Jennifer.

An Air Force veteran and communications specialist, Jennifer Ammentorp is an electrical engineering student at ODU, with plans to graduate in May 2003. The elder Ammentorp credits her success to a supportive upbringing and solid education, and she's trying to offer the same to Erica.

"I'm just encouraging her to study math and science," she said, "not to close any doors."

This isn't a hard sell: Erica adores both subjects. And as far as measuring up to her male peers, the middle-schooler is not concerned.

"Looking at the guys in my class," she said, "I'm like, `If you can do anything, I can do it better.' "

Reach Matthew Jones at mjones(AT)pilotonline.com

Caption: Graphic To show attendees what types of careers are available in engineering, and to fight stereotypes

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