Engineering group enrolls more than 50% women students for first time

September 3, 2014  

EPICS learning community

Students in the EPICS Learning Community program last fall evaluate sample materials for parts of a prosthetic leg. The students are, from left, Hailey Smith, Kelsey Wasilczuk, Jennie Boehm and Jessica Place. (Purdue University photo)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — More than half of the students enrolled in this fall’s Purdue University EPICS Learning Community are women, a first for the organization.

The learning community places first-semester students in the EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) program, where they work alongside upperclassmen to design engineering-based solutions to needs within the local and global communities.

The EPICS Learning Community, sponsored by Boeing, offers first-year students three common classes, outside-of-class activities, the opportunity for a shared residence experience and mentoring. This fall, 120 students are enrolled in the learning community.

Students take a course taught by William Oakes, an engineering education professor and EPICS director; one of several EPICS-related courses; and a small class in either English or communications. The combination is designed to help them transition to Purdue and explore different engineering disciplines as they prepare for a career.

EPICS has a history of attracting higher percentages of women because it offers a  combination of a community context for design work and the opportunity to gain real-life experience, Oakes said.

“If we are going to achieve our goals of increasing diversity in engineering, we need to set our sights on gender balance,” he said. “We have gotten close to gender balance with our high school EPICS programs, but this is the first time we have achieved it with an EPICS class entering college.  I am thrilled to be able to teach such a diverse class of students who will be making a difference in the world while they learn engineering.”

Nationally, 19.5 percent of engineering students are women. At Purdue, that number is 23 percent.

"Being a part of the EPICS Learning Community was one of the best decisions I made when coming to Purdue,” said Katherine Schmotzer, a junior majoring in civil engineering.  “It allowed me to immediately make a group of friends who were in my classes and that I could go to because they lived right next door. It is a great, small environment where you get to meet with professors, go to special learning community-only events, and find some of your best friends for the next four years."

  EPICS was founded at Purdue in 1995 and has grown into an independent academic program with an enrollment of about 400 students per semester. It also has expanded to more than 20 other universities and more than 60 high schools and middle schools. EPICS has become an international model for engineering education and community engagement.

 It has been honored by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, American Society for Engineering Education, National Science Foundation’s Corporate and Foundation Alliance, Association of Public and Land Grant Universities and Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology. IEEE, the largest engineering professional society in the world, designated EPICS as a signature program in 2013. 

Writer: Judith Barra Austin, 765-494-2432, 

Source: William Oakes, 765-494-3892, 

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