The University of Texas at Austin

Women in Engineering Program Turns 20

wep20year

Tricia Berry, director of the Women in Engineering Program on campus, talks with female First-year Interest Group engineering students during a weekly luncheon and seminar hosted by WEP. During this seminar, Berry and student mentors talked to the FIG group about the importance of sleep now that the women are adjusting to life as a college student.

It started in 1990 with a simple request put forth in a letter and signed by 15 female engineering professors. The letter to Herbert H. Woodson, who was dean of what is now the Cockrell School of Engineering, asked for the creation of a college-sponsored program to help recruit and retain women engineering students, a historically underrepresented population in the field.

Now, the Women in Engineering Program (WEP), which was born out of this idea, will celebrate its 20-year anniversary this coming year with a host of events that will begin next spring with the WEP Evening with Industry Banquet and end next October with a fundraising gala.

While it’s hard to gauge exactly how many women have been impacted by the program since it started in 1992, enrollment numbers for women in engineering degree programs at The University of Texas at Austin have increased by 6 percent and held steady in recent years. The number of bachelor’s degrees being awarded to women at the Cockrell School has also increased from about 14 percent to 20 percent, a number that is higher than the national average of 17.8 percent, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. Each year, WEP programs and services reach more than 1,500 currently enrolled women. Other WEP initiatives reach over 2,000 K-12 students, many of who are exposed to the world of engineering for the very first time.

“It was the summer of eighth grade when I attended [WEP’s weeklong summer engineering camp] that I went from being like every other girl. From that day forward I could say, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ and it got a positive response,” said Katie Kizziar, a former WEP volunteer, staff member and Cockrell School graduate, who now works with UTeachEngineering to inspire engineering and science undergraduates to pursue teaching high school science or engineering.

 Katie, along with alumni and current engineering women, credit WEP for helping them maneuver everything from classes to careers, if not for simply serving as a confirmation that they belong in engineering.

wepstory

The Women in Engineering Program on campus is led by four full-time staff, including (left to right) Didey Muniz, recruitment and outreach program coordinator, Ana Dison, retention program coordinator and Tricia Berry, director. Not pictured is Sher Marie Croft, the program's administrative associate.

“I would definitely encourage anyone to become involved in programs like WEP because it helped me understand that engineering is not just math, science and graph paper,” said Sue Park, a 2007 petroleum engineering graduate who now works for Chevron as an operations engineer overseeing 20 offshore wells. “[Engineering] also includes social interactions, writing skills, volunteer efforts and looking forward beyond even your college career, and you learn that through WEP. I think if people knew that early on more of them would stay with engineering.” For current students, WEP provides first-year students with Peer Assistance Leaders, or PALs, who are undergraduate mentors in their major.  PALs answer questions on everything from classes and faculty, to what life is like as a student on the 40 Acres.

For second-year students, WEP offers exclusive networking opportunities with industry leaders as well as leadership and career development opportunities through undergraduate research, leadership seminars and mentoring programs.

WEP directly connects female engineering students to faculty, industry representatives and to the creative and collaborative world of engineering.

“WEP works hard to ensure the Cockrell School is a welcoming place for women. We must actively encourage women to come into engineering if we want our enrollment to increase and we must ensure they feel comfortable, confident and supported once they are here,” said Tricia Berry, director of WEP, who volunteered as a WEP student mentor while she was a chemical engineering student at UT in the early 1990s. “We still have some departments where only 10-15 percent of the students are women. So while the culture of, ‘You don’t belong,’ may not be there, some of the numbers aren’t there either. The question is, ‘what’s the next step?’”

Berry and her staff of three other full-time employees say one answer is to focus their undergraduate recruitment efforts on high school girls who are academically eligible to attend the Cockrell School as well as on prospective students who have been admitted, but are weighing the school against other engineering programs around the country. Due to limitations from the Top 10 percent rule, Berry said focused recruitment like this is the most efficient way to get recruits at the school, where currently 22 percent of the engineering students are women—a percentage that’s above the national average of 18 percent on college campuses. Their goal is to raise that number to reflect the state’s female population: 50 percent.

To do so, their work hinges on securing crucial support to educate K-12 students about engineering, to inspire women to choose the Cockrell School over other universities, and to retain and graduate aspiring women engineers. All require people power and financial support—two things the program could use more of—but if the women of WEP have proved anything in their 20 years, starting with that letter in 1990, it’s that progress starts with one small act.

Support WEP:

 

As part of the 20-year anniversary, WEP has created a 20-Year Excellence Fund to raise money for student scholarships, program support and leadership development. A campaign drive for the excellence fund begins this month and will go through the end of 2011. To contribute to WEP’s success, visit the WEP support page.

Women in Engineering

Learn how three female engineers have excelled in the Women in Engineering Program (WEP). Read more.

Sue Park

Sue Park: Serendipity led to a major, WEP led to a career

Emily Chen

Emily Chen: WEP event brought her to UT

Katie Kizziar

Katie Kizziar: Exposure to engineering at summer camp shaped life