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Nationwide, the picture for enrollment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields is bleak at colleges and universities. For women in these fields, it is even worse.
At Rochester Institute of Technology, however, the view is quite different. Through a concerted effort that begins long before students consider college, the university has increased enthusiasm for the STEM fields among female students. The numbers are reflected in RIT's enrollment.
The university has seen a substantial increase in the number of female first-year students in STEM fields, officials noted. From 2007 to 2013, the number has increased 30 percent, putting RIT among a small number of colleges with growing enrollment in this area.
The number of women entering engineering programs has more than tripled in the last five years, RIT officials said.
Nationwide, the trend is moving the other way. A study released last year by the national Institute for Women's Policy Research found that while women were a majority of all college graduates, they received just 27.5 percent of associate degrees and occupational certificates in STEM fields, and those credentials are seen as pathways to bachelor's and graduate degrees.
That number has been decreasing as well, falling 10 percent in the last 15 years. As a result, the number of women employed in these fields has fallen, with a 3 percent decrease in women working in computers and math from 2000 to 2009.
The decline has occurred even as the need for students with STEM expertise grows. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that STEM employment could increase by some 20 percent from 2008 to 2018-almost double the rate of overall job growth.
RIT has taken a multifaceted approach to meet the need and bring more women into the fields. The university has worked with three other institutions on a National Science Foundation grant to investigate the idea that women's participation in engineering programs with work experiences like cooperative education or internships increases the likelihood of retention through graduation.
The investigation found that women in engineering programs with co-op components-such as the one RIT requires for all students-have better retention and graduation rates than their male peers.
In developing the study, a team that included Margaret Bailey, founding executive director of Women in Engineering at RIT, argued that creating an atmosphere that encourages women to participate is crucial.
"Since college is a point in which many women exit the engineering pipeline, it is essential to foster conditions that promote retention," the team noted in its grant application. "While many engineering programs are characterized by low rates of persistence for both women and men, this is particularly troubling for women because so few enter engineering majors in the first place."
At RIT, officials know that with a small number of women seeking STEM education and many institutions competing for them, creating the right atmosphere is key.
"You really do have to look at it holistically and understand that if a young woman is talented enough to qualify at RIT, they really have options everywhere, including all of RIT's competitors," said Harvey Palmer, dean of the Kate Gleason College of Engineering at RIT. "Even the schools that we aspire to be are going to be aggressively seeking these women, so when they come to visit, there has to be something special that makes them want to come here."
RIT has built a community that focuses on outreach to young women, making them a priority rather than an afterthought, Palmer said.
Much of that has to do with programs that work directly with women enrolled at RIT, but it also involves a wide spectrum of support for all ages. The Women in Engineering program, known as WE@RIT, has a slate of programs for girls of grade school age that includes hands-on programs and summer camps.
These programs allow girls to see a path to a STEM education and let RIT students become mentors to the participants, giving them important leadership experience.
RIT officials believe the program has encouraged the rise in female enrollment and shown prospective students the emphasis the university places on women.
"This says to students that here you will be immersed in an environment that supports women in engineering," Palmer said. "What I hear from women who join our college is that it was this environment that turned their heads and made them come to RIT."
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