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How One School is Aiming to Triple Its Number of Female Engineering Students

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Mary Kate Firisin was a bit intimidated when she started her first engineering class of the fall semester, since the field is largely dominated by men. But when she saw Jordan Davis, another female student in the class, she immediately felt at ease.

“That made a difference,” Firisin said.

“We sit right next to each other,” Davis added.

The two are the only female students in their engineering class at Norwalk Community College and they represent a trend at the school and nationwide: a gender disparity in engineering and technology. Although women make up nearly half of the workforce in the U.S., they represent just 14.5 percent of the engineering field, according to the National Science Foundation.

That representation is even lower at Norwalk Community College, where 90 percent of the school’s engineering students are men, according to Mobin Rastgar Agah, the college’s engineering coordinator. The department has 120 female students: 110 in engineering science and 10 in technology studies.

“If you look at the college, close to 60 percent of students all across the campus in all majors are women,” Agah said. “So if you compare the 60 percent with our 10 percent, you really see that we are at a disadvantage.”

But Agah wants to change this. His goal is to triple the college’s percentage of women in engineering within the next three years — an aggressive goal he hopes will be achievable with help from a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The grant was given to the engineering department to fund initiatives that will improve the recruitment and retention of women in engineering. Right now, Agah and several other math and science faculty are going through a training that will help them develop a plan, he said.

The faculty and administrators plan to partner with high school guidance counselors and female role models from the community, along with implementing short trainings in prerequisite courses that will help decrease the skill gaps between men and women.
These initiatives will especially focus on the engineering studies program, Agah said, with the goal of equipping more women to take on engineering and mechanical jobs straight out of college after earning their associate degrees.

Year one of the grant will primarily involve planning, and years two and three will focus on implementation and delivery.

“We all agree that the diversity of a community shows how strong a community is. So just by not having enough women in engineering and technology programs, we are just missing an opportunity,” Agah said. “There’s a pool of talent that nobody has tapped into.”

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