This fall, the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin has set records in its female enrollment. The school reported the highest percentage of incoming female freshmen and the largest number of female undergraduates enrolled.
Of the fall 2013 freshman engineering class of 1,161 students, 29 percent are women. Additionally, at 1,345, out of an undergraduate population of 5,614, this is the most women ever enrolled at one time in the Cockrell School.*
"I am thrilled and proud that the Cockrell School's female enrollment numbers are hitting all-time highs and falling in line with national trends," said Sharon Wood, interim dean of the Cockrell School who is also the school's first female dean. "We will continue to provide programs and initiatives aimed at recruiting and retaining women in engineering. These students bring perspectives and problem-solving skills that will propel the field of engineering forward."
Although there have been steady increases in female enrollment almost every year for the past two decades, the past five years has seen the most significant growth. In 2009, women accounted for 24 percent of the freshman class, increasing to 26 percent in 2012 and jumping to this year's 29 percent.
Tricia Berry, director of the Cockrell School's Women in Engineering Program (WEP), said these numbers correlate to national figures that show higher female enrollments in engineering programs across the board, mainly as a result of dedicated initiatives to promote an understanding of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
"We've continued to see increases over the years, aligning with the nationwide push in STEM education and the messaging shifting in a way that engages girls," said Berry, who is a nationally recognized leader in STEM education.
The STEM message, she said, has broadened to take a more human approach, particularly in presenting engineering as a field that helps to make the world a better place. "This speaks more to the passions and interests of our female students," Berry said.
Through WEP at the Cockrell School, recruitment efforts toward women have become more targeted. Students are connected to mentors and information early on, beginning when they are admitted. Programs to facilitate these connections include WE@UT, which works with high school women who attend UT Austin's Honors Colloquium, and WE Connect, which connects admitted students to current students, staffers and faculty members who can offer advice on being Longhorn engineers.
"The students become more informed about their choices and the resources available to them, which also helps retain them in engineering," Berry said.
The Women in Engineering Program began in 1991, and Berry has served as WEP director since 1999. It is the only university-driven women in engineering program among colleges and universities across Texas.
Mechanical engineering senior Katherine Sandhop said she was drawn to the Cockrell School because of the promise of a valuable education, adding that, for her, WEP helped the school stand out against other universities by offering opportunities to visit campus and learn more about engineering. In her fourth year, Sandhop said she's noticed a visible increase in the number of female engineers on campus.
"The more involved women get in the Cockrell School through classes, organizations, leadership roles and volunteer opportunities, the more successful role models there are for younger female students to see," she said.
At the Cockrell School, female students lead nearly half of the student organizations. Of 80 engineering student groups, 35 have female presidents.
"Women problem-solve in a different way," Berry said. "Increasing the number of women in engineering education increases the diversity of thought and backgrounds brought to create solutions that will only further strengthen the engineering profession."
*All numbers are based on preliminary 12th class day records and do not include dual majors.