Women make up a quarter of UI College of Engineering's freshman class

Women make up a quarter of UI College of Engineering's freshman class

URBANA — Women will make up about 25 percent of the freshman class at the University of Illinois College of Engineering this year, a new high.

The exact numbers won't be official until the campus releases 10-day enrollment figures in a couple of weeks. But Kevin Pitts, associate dean of undergraduate programs, said the college estimates that a quarter of its roughly 1,500 freshmen are female.

"That's up significantly from where we've been in the past. It's a record freshman class," Pitts said Friday.

Last year, women made up 19 percent of engineering freshmen, or about 312 students. The college's previous high was in 2014, at 22 percent.

The number includes women in physics, computer science, bioengineering and more traditional engineering fields.

"I don't think it's an anomaly. Of course, time will tell," said Pitts, a physics professor.

"There's been a real effort over many years to kind of change the mindset" of young women — and others — that science and engineering "isn't just for boys," he said.

National efforts such as "Girls Who Code," as well as College of Engineering summer camps for middle school and high school girls, have made a dent, he said, spurring interest in science, math, engineering and technology fields (also known as STEM).

The college has also tried to be proactive in providing academic support for women in engineering because they're "still in the minority."

"As excited as we are about having 25 percent in our freshman class, it doesn't take too long to think you have a long way to go to get to parity," Pitts said.

While the college doesn't have to have a 50-50 split, he said, "what I want is equal opportunity." With the numbers still rising, the college isn't there yet, he said.

"Not everybody needs to be an engineer. Not everybody needs to be a scientist," Pitts said. "But what we do know is that some of the gender-specific biases and stereotypes, studies show that those get baked in at pretty young ages."

It's important for girls in sixth, seventh and eighth grade to have "real-life role models" who can show them that it's possible for them to have a STEM career, he said.

"If they choose not to, more power to them. We just don't want them to feel like 'That's not for me because it's all boys,'" Pitts said.

One area that's shown a significant uptick is computer science, which Pitts credited to computer-coding camps as well as the popularity of Minecraft and other video games.

Bioengineering is also a popular choice. Life sciences fields in general have always had higher numbers of female students than the physical sciences, especially pre-med majors such as biology, he said.

In the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the number of women has risen for three consecutive years in four STEM departments — biology (from 274 in fall 2014 to 325 this year), math (from 64 to 81), statistics (from nine to 24) and chemical engineering, which is in LAS (from 40 to 51).

Kayla Mack, a freshman in engineering from the south Chicago suburb of Lansing, isn't sure what area she's going to specialize in yet. She's always liked science, and "I definitely love math," but she wasn't interested in being a doctor or a teacher. Her cousin studied engineering at Stanford and suggested she give it a try.

"Out of all the schools that I was accepted to, I just felt that U of I was the best choice," she said.

Mack said it's important for female engineering students to have role models because it can be intimidating to be one of a few women in the class.

The orientation session last week was "a great experience," connecting her with other female students and faculty members.

"I learned that I had amazing advisers who will always be there to help me if I have a question about anything. It was very reassuring and it made me feel more confident, especially about studying engineering," she said.

Pitts said the goal is to build community among the young women and "help them get off to a good start, let them know there are people on campus to help them learn how to succeed."

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Sancho Panza wrote on August 22, 2016 at 7:08 am

Maize and blue shirts to welcome these ladies to Illinois seems like an odd marketing choice.