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MSU engineering professors investigating how to increase the number of women in STEM fields

By BECKY GILLETTE

There has been a talent shortage in Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) fields over the past decade and economic projections show an even greater demand for STEM professionals in the near future. Economic forecasts predict that the United States will have a shortfall of about 1 million STEM professionals over the next decade. But in the U.S., women represent only about 15-25 percent of enrollment in some engineering fields.

Dr. Jean Mohammadi-Aragh

Dr. Rani Sullivan

Two prominent women engineers in the state, Mississippi State University (MSU) aerospace engineering professor Rani W. Sullivan and electrical and computer engineering assistant professor M. Jean Mohammadi-Aragh, want to encourage more women to enter science-based computing fields. They have received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation  for a project designed to identify new ways to recruit and retain women in engineering based on stories from both international and American students with regards to their career choice.

Sullivan said that in addition to being important to meet the demand for engineering jobs, studies indicate higher performance from diverse teams. “And this diversity can be achieved, in part, by increasing the number of women in engineering,” Sullivan said.

More women in engineering means having more engineers available to fill open jobs, Mohammadi-Aragh said.

“State and local efforts have expanded opportunities for new industries to locate in Mississippi,” Mohammadi-Aragh said. “Locally, the immediate Tri-County area surrounding MSU consisting of Clay, Lowndes, and Oktibbeha counties is home to a growing aerospace and manufacturing corridor. Many Mississippi companies need engineers.”

Historically, Mississippi companies have been more successful in using the local work force rather than importing workers from other states. But Mohammadi-Aragh said competing for engineering graduates on a national level is particularly difficult since the number of engineering graduates is low nationwide.

“Perceptions and stereotypes of Mississippi compound the issue by creating challenges for recruiting graduates to move to Mississippi for employment,” she said. “But Mississippians know the truth about our amazing state, and want to stay here. So, let’s figure out how to encourage more people, including women, to pursue engineering so they can fill open engineering jobs in Mississippi.”

There are numerous factors that impact the low percentages of women in STEM fields in the U.S. Sullivan said one consistent research finding is that many women don’t go into engineering because quite simply, they think they can’t.

“Early on, students receive subtle signals about appropriate career choices for girls and this impacts the choices they ultimately make, causing them to self-select from the list of ‘appropriate’ careers for women,” Sullivan said.

Women are also discouraged by stereotypes such as that women aren’t good at math.

“If a young girl has heard that stereotype and then walks into a mathematics test and sees that they are the only girl, they may start to believe the stereotype,” Mohammadi-Aragh said. “Or, if they don’t score well, they may attribute it to evidence for the truth of the stereotype. Then they will avoid career paths, like engineering, based on a misconception about the stereotype.”

Researchers have shown that those overt messages young women receive early lead them to avoid engineering and math in future careers. Mohammadi-Aragh said she thinks it could also be related to cultural expectations.

“That’s one of the things we will investigate in our upcoming research,” Mohammadi-Aragh said. “Who are role models for young women? Are mothers able to coach young women that they can be successful in fields like engineering?”

Sullivan said she doesn’t think it is so much that women don’t know that engineering can be a good career. But they may not recognize that engineering can be exciting and rewarding work that will allow them to make a very positive impact on society.

“Many young women may simply see the challenges – completing four semesters of calculus, for example – and don’t realize that engineering will give them opportunities to make very impactful, meaningful positive differences for individuals within their communities and the world,” Sullivan said. “Engineers make huge differences in every area, from health care to our environment to everyday communication and transportation.”

Engineers literally change and shape the world. “I don’t think young girls always realize that we can,” Mohammadi-Aragh said. “And that we do!”

Both women agree that it is important to encourage all students to start thinking of STEM careers in elementary school. From the very beginning – children should be playing with blocks along with dolls.

“Young children can tinker and learn about engineering and STEM informally, which will complement the formal engineering and STEM education in schools,” Mohammadi-Aragh said. “I know many faculty and staff at Mississippi State who are involved in efforts to promote engineering and computing in K-12 classrooms. All their efforts will help young women to consider engineering and STEM as future careers.”

Sullivan’s role model was her father, Z. U. A. Warsi, was a professor of aerospace engineering at MSU. “His passion for both research and education made an impact on me and it was due to his encouragement that I pursued aerospace engineering,” she said.

Mohammadi-Aragh’s dad is a mechanical engineer.

“He thinks highly of engineering as a profession,” Mohammadi-Aragh said. “He encouraged me every step of the way, and would often explain the ‘engineering’ behind decisions he made when I was a child. I also benefited from my mom being a school teacher. My mom didn’t promote engineering per se; she promoted education more generally. For example, she always found some new math game to keep me challenged and help me see that math is fun. Education is so important to both my parents, and they successfully transferred that value to me.”

The goal of the research is to consider the influence of culture on women’s choices to pursue STEM careers.

“Jean and I have had many discussions regarding the impact of culture on life and career choices as both of us have a leg in two cultures,” Sullivan said. “For me, I’m both Indian and American. With regard to culture on the Indian subcontinent, careers in engineering and sciences have very prestigious and positive connotations. Both boys and girls are encouraged to pursue their education in engineering or the sciences.”

Mohammadi-Aragh grew up in a Persian-American family.

“Engineering is a very prestigious career in Middle Eastern culture,” Mohammadi-Aragh said. “In our research, we will examine how career expectations, individual and family values, and cultural differences impact women’s pursuit of engineering and STEM careers.”

The NSF grant will allow the research team to identify differences in engineering messaging within Moroccan and American cultures to determine factors that contribute to women’s decisions to pursue engineering degrees at higher rates in Morocco.

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About Becky Gillette