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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Building Opportunity

Engineering is a man’s world. At least that’s what statistics say. Today, women comprise just over 9 percent of all U.S. engineers — a percentage that has quadrupled since 1978 when women made up less than 2 percent of the engineering workforce. The numbers still are exceedingly lower than those of men in the field. Lucky for the local climate, the status quo doesn’t suffice for the University of Evansville, which for 20 years has been combining the technical, industrial, and professional aspects of engineering into a unique program, UE OPTIONS, geared toward middle and high school girls.

Dick Blandford, department chair of electrical engineering and computer science at UE, says it’s been difficult for women to break the glass ceiling, but with UE OPTIONS, which he helped create in 1992, the school is doing its part to bridge the gap — and the results are encouraging.

Between 30 and 40 percent of program participants go on to major in engineering (be it electrical, mechanical, civil, or computer-related) in college, and 10 to 20 percent attend UE. “It starts with eight- to 12-hour courses taught by professors and professional alumni, culminating with in-depth, hands-on projects to inspire girls to continue with math and science,” says Tina Newman, the administrative associate in the college of engineering and computer science and coordinator of the OPTIONS program for 16 years. “Our goal is to build connections and have females explore these areas without typical gender peer pressure, and our mentors show the girls how to handle and gain respect in a male-dominated field.”

Bringing in local businesswomen, professors, and undergraduates in fields related to engineering, the program offers a weeklong residential camp at UE that includes field trips to local industries, guest lectures from professionals, and group projects. Melissa Bippus went through OPTIONS her sophomore year of high school in 1995, and went on to become the senior engineer of the ice and water group at Whirlpool. She attributes the program for introducing her to the field. “I had no idea what engineers did,” she says. “As I grew up I wanted to teach history, but it was amazing as a high school student to meet professionals and ask, ‘What do you do?’”

Bippus continued with the program as a counselor all four summers throughout college, and after growing connections with a mentor from Whirlpool as a UE mechanical engineer undergraduate, she became a mentor herself.

Rather than the emblematic balsa wood bridge pieced together with scissors and hot glue, OPTIONS creates group projects that teach application and process. Past experiments have included a water balloon catapult and a tethered balloon launch. “We add a professional component,” Newman says. “With a civil engineer showing them how to build a bridge or tower, a level of sophistication is added.”

In addition to the weeklong camp, the program also has offered abroad experiences to students. In 2008 and 2011, the Lilly Endowment provided funds for a group to go to Harlaxton Manor, UE’s English campus, for four days. “We took a trip to Skegness on the coast,” Newman says. “The girls were given a tour of a wind energy farm, with turbines on the water, by three representatives. One was an engineer, the other a biologist, and the third a public relations person, which goes to show the scope of the field.”

Although originally catered to high school females, OPTIONS was made available to middle school girls in 1994, and now has a separate middle school boys’ camp. With limited student enrollment — between 20 and 30 — participants get as much one-on-one attention as possible. Most of the students in OPTIONS are from the Evansville area, but past participants have come from as far as Pennsylvania, Oregon, Missouri, and Texas.

David Bothast, director of corporate and foundation relations at UE, says OPTIONS fits neatly into STEM, a national initiative to offer opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math for underrepresented populations. This past September, OPTIONS’ success was reflected in a $30,000 grant received from the Alcoa Foundation.

“Alcoa was one of the original sponsors of the program,” Blandford says. “We’ve sent a number of women engineers back to them, and we’re lucky to have the support.”

The grant, according to Bothast, will be used toward the next two summer OPTIONS programs. “It provides scholarships for 24 high school or middle school girls in Warrick County and the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp.,” he says.

Bippus says that, as an engineer, she has developed problem solving skills and enough flexibility in her degree to do anything she wants. “Engineers can become lawyers, medical students, or bridge builders,” she says. “Honestly, my mom made me go, and I’m glad for it. If nothing else, the money spent on the program can show people what they don’t want to do, which is cheaper than a year of tuition.”

OPTIONS has created opportunities for aspiring women, and the results show more college students, particularly female, matriculating into engineering fields.

“The program creates potential for bright students to make a difference,” Blandford says. “We give them the options.”

For information on registering for UE OPTIONS, visit options.evansville.edu.

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