Undergraduate researchers dig into diversity in engineering

Engineering students Natasha Pye and Juliana Dobbie investigated diversity at the Faculty of Engineering as part of an undergraduate research project.

(Edmonton) Engineering students at the University of Alberta have plenty of opportunities to get involved with research. Over the course of a year, dozens of undergraduate students get hands-on research experience through the Dean’s Research Awards, investigating subjects like 3-D printing of fuel cell microstructures, or ways to assemble a robotic prosthetic hand.

But this spring two engineering students took on a research subject that is less traditional but every bit as important: gender diversity in the U of A Faculty of Engineering.

Under the supervision of professors Ania Ulrich and Lianne Lefsrud, engineering students Juliana Dobbie and Natasha Pye dug into gender diversity in the Faculty of Engineering—their findings will be useful in developing initiatives by the University of Alberta Diversity in Engineering working group to help make the faculty more diverse.

Dobbie’s research examined enrolment and retention rates of female engineering students in Canada. Her findings reveal insights into how vitally important it is for women to feel they belong and are supported in these programs. 

Canadian statistics show that female high school students scoring grades higher than 90 in math were less likely than their male classmates with grades below 90 to major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degree program in university.  More than 30 per cent of male students who had marks below 80 and attended university chose a STEM program, compared to approximately 10 per cent of women in the same mark category.

And yet despite the fact that female students entering engineering programs have relatively high entrance averages, which means they should be less likely to leave the program, they are just as likely, or possibly slightly more likely, to not complete an undergraduate degree.

“To take this hypothesis one step further,” Dobbie writes, “it could be presumed that female students are more likely to drop out of engineering not because they are failing academically, but because they perceive themselves to be not as successful as their more confident peers.”

Dobbie says her confidence was boosted and she received valuable support through a network of friends she connected with through the U of A’s WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology) summer program. Dobbie spent most of the summer between Grades 11 and 12 working in a biomedical engineering lab on campus, learning what engineering is all about, getting a feel for university life, and forming lasting friendships.

“I made connections with like-minded people and that was really important for someone like me, who is from a rural background. I was one of three people in my graduating class who went to the University of Alberta. Having that WISEST network really minimized my feelings of isolation.”

Pye’s research looked at current diversity levels in the faculty, barriers preventing women from studying engineering, and the impact role models have on women in engineering programs.

She examined enrollment records between 2011 and 2015. IN that time, female undergraduate enrollment at U of A saw a 1.4 per cent increase, from 19.8 to 21.2 per cent, whereas other Canadian institutions saw increases of three to five per cent.

She also tracked the number of female engineering professors at the U of A from 2001 to 2016. It had increased from 6.4 to 11.2 per cent in that time. But that figure puts the U of A well below the national average of 15.7 per cent compared this to the North American average.

Pye also combed through Engineering Students’ Society records to measure diversity in student governance—it was a bright spot with about 40 per cent of executive and senior executive positions being occupied by female students.

“I tracked data for ESS vice-presidents from 1962 to 2016. From 1962 to 1977, there was no female involvement at this level in the ESS. Then there was a five-year period of female involvement. From 1991 onwards, there has been a steady representation of female VPs at 40 per cent,” she says. “In the span of just over a decade female representation went from zero to 40 per cent, which could indicate that a culture shift towards inclusivity took place in this time. I also looked at assistant vice-president and co-ordinator data, which was available from 1998 to 2015, and also found the same 40 per cent female representation, which shows that females are overrepresented at all levels of this organization.”

But the faculty needs to do more to increase overall numbers of female students, she says.

“Other engineering schools have special Women in Engineering open houses,” said Pye. “They really work on fostering mentorship and role modelling.”

Ulrich and Lefsrud, who are serving as advisors to the student-led diversity group, say they’re impressed with the research both students conducted.

“They’re changing things,” said Lefsrud. “We’re here to assist them and connect them to whatever resources we can, and offering guidance on approaching research projects and connecting them to other experts

“This was amazing,” said Ulrich. “They have risen to the occasion. They are in full force and invested in this.”