Calculus: Is It The Key?

May 18, 2011
RECENTLY, I attended a conference for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA) in Phoenix, AZ. Many of the topics, guest speakers, and panels revolved around attracting more students into Science, ...

RECENTLY, I attended a conference for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA) in Phoenix, AZ. Many of the topics, guest speakers, and panels revolved around attracting more students into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medical (STEM) education. A former US Senator from Delaware, Ted Kaufman, gave an engaging talk on this topic. He stated that he was the only member of the Senate at the time of his tenure to have an engineering degree, whichunfortunately was not hard for me to believe. Ted contended that technology is the way to move the US out of our recession and continue our tradition of being a great nation of innovators, inventors, and thoughtleaders (aka the number-one world economy). Because engineers are the ones solving problems, we need to have more of themspawning a new era of growth around "knowledge IP."

How do we accomplish such a task and bring girls, in particular, into the engineering fold? First, we must reach high-school students and make calculus fun. More than any other course, calculus seems to be the fork in the road. As students complete this class, they then decide which career path to pursue (technical or not).

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed my calculus class in high school. My teacher, Mr. John Drumm, made it fun with his animated way of teaching and his excitement for solving double and triple integrals through his textbook of choice, The Calculus, by the late Louis Leithold. His enthusiasm was contagious. I know he helped me see the fun in solving "those monsters." As I think about my career choice following this class, I don't know if calculus was a deciding moment or not. But certainly, I did learn that I had fun solving mathematical problems.

Does STEM hinge upon having fun in math class? Is this theory the one we want to prove? And if so, do the women who choose STEM (for this article, we'll focus on the "E" for electrical engineering) as a career path have more fun in a math curriculum than others? Or do family role models also come into play?

To uncover any common threads, I put together a quick survey and sent it out to a few WiE/WiM contributors I've met over the past year or two. The respondents represented academia and industry as well as current students. In reviewing the responses, here's what I was able to extract:

We all decided to become engineers in our mid- to late-teenage years.
We all thoroughly enjoyed calculus and any/all math courses we took.

I also inferred that we are all strong, independent thinkers with an exceptional dose of can-do. After all, fewif any of ushad a strong family/ friend support network nurturing us to become engineers. Undoubtedly, all of the women who participated in the survey are outstanding and have achieved milestones of success in engineering. Hence, I am back to my original question: How do we attract more students into STEM and, in particular, electrical engineering? I think back on my career path, hoping to provide a little enlightenment on how early the interest and success needs to start.

I went to a small elementary school with one room each for kindergarten through 6th grade. I had a knack for learning, and my specialty was math. Along with my friends, I would spend many hours of independent-study time solving math problems and other geek-in-the-making activities. Louis (who ate paste), Jeff (a basketball fanatic), and I were quite the threesome from about fifth grade on, working independently to solve all sorts of mathematical problems and puzzles.

With about 800 or so in my class in junior high and high school, I met up with other overachievers. We advanced more or less together, taking all the college prep/AP courses that were offered. I even became a math tutor for younger classmates (something I also did in college). I enjoyed learning math principles and had fun trying to help others love it as much as I did.

After high school, I headed off to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) because it had a great engineering school and was close (but not too close) to home. I opted for EE at the time I was accepted. During this era, CMU had to limit admission and only accepted students with top SAT math scores into EE. I also figured that if I started with EE and couldn't handle it, it would be easier to switch to another domain than start elsewhere and switch into EE. At the end of my four years at CMU, I was one of eight females in the graduating EE class of 150 people to receive a degree (5% WiE).

These days, the trend is the same. Only a handful of women pursue engineering in college. Even more worrisome, the amount of college students focusing on microwave and RF engineering is declining. How can these numbers be so low, when microwaves and RF technologies are constantly evolving and reaching new industries? It is possible that students do not recognize the opportunities in this market. This is unfortunate, as the opportunities are vastand increasing as markets expand and veteran RF and microwave engineers retire. In my case, for example, I was recruited by Intel upon graduation and moved to Chandler, AZ with a group of 30 new college graduates. Only two of us (7%) were females. The other woman, who is still a friend of mine, also happens to work on the microwaves and RF side of EE. After two years of engineering with Intel, I moved back to Pittsburgh to work for a little startup called Ansoft. I joined Ansoft in 1990 as employee number 20and the only female EE within the company (5%). When I left in 2006, there were around six or seven female engineers employed out of nearly 400 (2%).

Putting aside the broader problem of less EE students focusing on microwave and RF technologies, the lack of women entering this field is obviously a concern. Numbering less than 10% of the engineering population as a whole, women clearly pursue this career path for the love of the sciences and the pleasure that we get from our work. We also discover a love of math at an early age and have a strong dose of self-esteem. To encourage girls and young women to go into engineering, however, those of us who have made a career in this largely male industry need to speak up and share our stories. We need to let young women know that engineering as a career path is exciting, dynamic, and rewarding.

Much like the FIRST Robotics franchise has done to attract more young persons in grades 9 to12 into science and technology, perhaps we as females need to pioneer a similar stimulus program. We can strive to win over those females who love calculus at an early age and keep them enamored with it through college and into their professional lives. They may then maintain that passion and elect STEM as the career path of choice. I don't have all of the answers, but I do know we need to work together in order to solve this problem. To quote Ted Kaufman, "knowledge IP" will keep us a strong and great nation. STEM is vital. And with more and more working adults of the female persuasion, we need to be sure that we are not overlooking them.

Read the other parts of this WiE 50th anniversary article to be inspired by the hard-working and modest women who have made a wonderful career for themselves in the microwave & RF domain, and let's see what ideas come to mind. More than any one thing, it seems that the power of circumstance had us all finding our way into the microwave and RF domain. If we make microwaves and RF engineering an attractive choice, we could make our numbers risein both male and female engineers.

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