Welcome to engineering school…if you’re male

It was a light-hearted reception during college freshman orientation.  More than sixty new engineering students assembled to shake hands with the professors who would teach and guide them for the next four years.

“Hi!”  I looked into the eyes of the first stranger.

“Welcome to _______,” he smiled.

The line moved.

It was a small liberal arts school with an engineering department that offered an engineering science degree–a general course of study that attracted students who typically pursued graduate or professional school upon graduation.  My goal was much simpler;  get a degree and get a job.

“Hi!  I’m Kelley.” to the next man.

“I’m __________.” he responded.

The line moved.

Had I known my goals were so different from that of my peers, I would have figured out I was in the wrong place sooner.  My parents had pushed me to go to a small school and it never occurred to me to try to understand the difference between a large university with a college of engineering that prepared students for the workforce and a small, elite school with an engineering department that prepped students for further education.

“Hi!” I grabbed the hand of a taller gentleman.

“Welcome.”

The line moved.

Had I thought about it more, a similar gauntlet at a large university would have included hundreds of students and dozens of faculty.  My small-school choice meant my undergraduate education relied on a small cadre of professors.

“Hi!” I shook the hand of another professor.

“Hi.” he politely replied.

The line stalled.  A faculty member ahead of my position in line was particularly chatty.

“Hi.” I shook hands with the next man.

“Why do you want to be an engineer?” I overheard the talkative professor ahead of me asking each freshman.

“Hi, I’m ________.” spoke the man in front of me.

The line moved.  

A few more handshakes and I stood in front of the gray-haired man who engaged students energetically with his get-to-know-you question.  I extended my hand with a pleasant greeting.

The line stalled.

<silence>

I had broken the professor’s upbeat rhythm.  

With nothing to say, he paused for a moment and looked me up and down before finally reaching for my hand.

“Why do you want to be an engineer?” he somewhat sneered.  I fumbled a response to which he had no response and moved on.  Reaching the end of the line, I looked back at the scene.  What was that about??  I spied the chatty professor who had resumed to shake hands and greet students.

1985, 100% male engineering faculty.  At least one misogynist educator. Oh shit.

Engineering is notoriously rough on freshman, and I observed plenty of my male peers flee to easier majors over the first couple of semesters.  I stuck with it for two years, but never felt welcome.  The men in my class seemed to have a close relationship with the professors, almost like fathers and sons. My few interactions with faculty were awkward at best–I had the sense they were waiting for me leave.  I did.

I transferred schools to a large state university with a student body that shared my finish-degree-to-get-a-job goals and found a home amongst my socioeconomic peers.  Some of my engineering classes were taught by graduate students, some by new faculty, and some by tenured professors.  And then it happened–I had a class taught by a female engineering professor.

Dr. Lynn Peterson at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) strode to the engineering lecture hall twice a week to teach undergraduates the fundamentals of artificial intelligence (AI).  The subject held great promise in the 1950s, but had failed to achieve commercial success.  While innovations such as the RISC (reduced instruction set computer) were setting the 1980s computing world on fire, artificial intelligence remained mainly as a research interest.

Yet, Dr. Peterson taught AI with enthusiasm, and I distinctly remember her pleasantness in the classroom.  She greeted students with welcoming smiles and returned assignments with thoughtful commentary–a professor who cared about student engagement.  When I wrote my entire semester project covering the subject of neural networks in an epistolary format and signed it “Mary Shelley” (the author of Frankenstein),  Dr. Peterson applauded my creativity rather than penalizing me for shedding the traditional paper format–a professor who prioritized learning over style.  Entertaining the class with an attention-grabbing clip from the 1931 Frankenstein movie for my final presentation, I felt the warmth of her approval as I effectively communicated my topic and entertained the class–a professor who wants me (and others) to succeed.

The semester ended.

Walking the faculty hallway not long afterwards, Dr. Peterson appeared.”Hi, Kelley!” she beckoned.  I had barely stopped to say ‘hello’ before she began to tell me about a colleague who was seeking research assistants for the artificial intelligence laboratory at the university’s robotics institute.  I was perfect, she said.  I seized the opportunity and worked at the robotics institute until I graduated. Years later, I’m still struck meaningfulness of this connection.  The camaraderie that I observed between students and male professors at my first school had been inaccessible to me, as well as the advantages that went with it–opportunities.  At UTA, Dr. Peterson had provided me with my first-ever network connection.

According to the National Science Foundation, women comprise less than 20% of engineering degrees at the bachelor’s level.  Why so low?  There are a myriad of reasons, but culture stands out to me–the subtle or not-so-subtle cues that can discourage a young person’s ambitions.  I could have quit engineering after that first indication of trouble in the gauntlet, but I didn’t.  I stuck it out and eventually found Dr. Peterson, and Dr. Peterson found me. Time has passed, and there are more generations of female engineers in the workplace. Yet, it’s still a struggle to find a friendly female face in a sea of men. Repeated studies have shown the importance of role models and mentorship.  It matters–I’m proof.

It may be no surprise that I kept my copy of the textbook Dr. Peterson used in her class: Artificial Intelligence, 2nd Edition by Patrick Henry Winston, copyright 1984.  I thumbed through it before publishing this blog post.  Amazingly, the first line of the preface reads “The field of Artificial Intelligence has changed enormously since the first edition of this book.”  Given the daily news around AI in the mainstream media, I wonder if an AI book could ever start any other way!  

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