Connected by Design

by Vicky Fang, Ph.D.

When I joined Cedarville’s engineering faculty in 2004, I was the only female faculty member in the department. Though I was outnumbered in a field of study dominated by men, I felt honored to be in my position. With very few female students enrolled in Cedarville’s engineering program, I knew God had great things in store for me — and many things for me to accomplish.

Cedarville’s enrollment statistics reflect the nationally low enrollment and retention rates among female engineers. Approximately 25 percent of freshman men at Cedarville major in engineering. In contrast, fewer than 10 freshman women major in engineering. With the numbers against them, female engineering students need a resource for support and encouragement.

Overcoming Isolation

In an academic area with so little gender diversity, female students face isolation and loss of academic self-confidence in many of their classes. These women often have to modify their ways of thinking, learning, and working to reflect a masculine point of view. On a practical level, our male students have an advantage in the residence halls. They can walk down the hall to find a classmate when they need help with their coursework. Without that opportunity for collaboration, our female students tend to work independently to solve homework problems.

I saw women gifted in engineering, yet their department offered no female guidance. I also saw a staggeringly low retention rate. My heart was burdened to do something to help these women develop their talents. With the support of Cedarville’s engineering program, we established a Cedarville chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) to encourage our female students to grow, succeed, and use their skills for the glory of God.

SWE is a national organization that empowers women to achieve their full potential as professional engineers and leaders in the field. The organization increases awareness of the engineering profession as a positive force in improving quality of life and demonstrating the value of diversity.

Since our SWE chapter formed in fall 2004, it has made a substantial impact on students’ lives. I gladly accepted the responsibility to advise this women’s organization. I knew that I could relate to obstacles these young women were facing and effectively encourage and support them in their studies.

Building Community

We begin each semester with an orientation for new female engineering students and introduce the organization as a safe, encouraging, and fun home base. These new students form support teams with other new students to facilitate peer assistance and teamwork. Upperclassman female students form mentoring teams with the newest students in order to offer practical and academic guidance.

One of our members, Alissa Johnson ’11, is a computer science major from Lapeer, Michigan. She understands what it’s like to be the only woman in her major classes. She said, “I appreciated the support from junior and senior SWE members who came alongside me and encouraged me when I started out in the major. And I’m glad to have the chance to do that myself now that I’m an upperclassman.”

While we do not require SWE participation, we consider all female engineering students to be members. We have organized activities like movie nights, dessert outings, and birthday celebrations to facilitate connections and friendships among the women. We also sponsor an annual presentation by a female engineer working in the industry. We want SWE to be an inclusive community of learning and support where each woman in the department can seek out academic assistance and find sincere companionship.

Each semester, we select a service project to complete as an organization. This fall, we presented fun demonstrations at local elementary schools to teach children about opportunities in engineering. Not only do these activities build friendships and teamwork, but they are also a way to share God’s love with the local community by exercising our talents and gifts.

Making Our Mark

I have seen the profound effects that SWE has had on recruiting women to Cedarville’s engineering program. In 2004, there were fewer than 10 female students in the department. In 2010, six women completed the program including our first computer science graduate. This fall, we have 37 women with a declared engineering or computer science major.

I have also seen the impact that SWE has had on my life. Working with the SWE women has been a blessing. Each one is a gift that God has sent into my life. I am so proud of all of them; their success brings me so much joy. The cards, cookies, prayers, and hugs from my students have made my investment very rewarding.

I can clearly see that God brought me here to mentor and develop this special group of young women as we make our mark on the engineering profession.