sealPurdue News

April 25, 1997

Women engineers celebrate 100-year history at Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- When Martha Stevens earned a degree in civil engineering in 1897, she became the first woman to graduate from Purdue University with an engineering degree.

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One hundred years later, Jennifer Wise, from Hickory Hills, Ill. , also will earn a civil engineering degree from Purdue -- one of nearly 300 women receiving undergraduate engineering degrees at 9:30 a.m. May 17 in Purdue's Elliott Hall of Music.

Wise is an example of what attracts women to Purdue engineering and what helps them graduate. She has been a mentor to younger women students and has served as president of Purdue's chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. As president, she coordinated activities such as an essay contest for junior high girls and visits by society members to junior highs and high schools.

At Purdue and nationwide, less than 1 percent of engineering students were women before 1972, and less than 25 percent of the few who chose engineering actually graduated.

Today the picture has changed dramatically, due in part to Purdue's pioneering efforts to attract and retain female engineering students -- efforts that are now used as a model for other universities.

"In the past 10 years, Purdue has graduated more undergraduate women engineers than any other university in the country, averaging about 250 bachelor's degrees a year," says Jane Z. Daniels, director of Purdue's Women in Engineering Programs. "Women make up about 23 percent of the graduating engineers at Purdue, while nationally it's about 18 percent. Also, about 22 percent of undergraduate engineers enrolled at Purdue are women, compared to about 19 percent nationwide."

"But our strength and success over the years has been in increasing the number of women who start in engineering and graduate in engineering. That figure is now equal to that of men -- between 55 and 60 percent."

Little is known about what Stevens did with her engineering degree a century ago, but Wise certainly knows what she'll be doing with hers -- helping clean up the environment.

"I chose to major in civil engineering at Purdue because I could specialize in environmental engineering within the school," Wise says. "Developing efficient processes and reducing unnecessary wastes is something I wanted to do since I was a freshman." After graduation, Wise plans to work for Law Engineering, an environmental engineering firm in Chicago.

Purdue's engineering alumnae are astronauts, corporate executives, researchers and engineers -- including Laura Mechalke (ma-HALL-kee), a 1990 electrical engineering graduate from Noblesville who works for Corning Inc. in Corning, N.Y. As an engineering supervisor at the plant that makes catalytic converter components, she is responsible for the upkeep of equipment.

"In the engineering profession, it may take a little longer for a woman to earn respect, but an engineering degree from Purdue automatically earns you respect, man or woman, no questions asked," Mechalke says.

Mechalke decided to attend Purdue when she was a high school junior, after attending Purdue's Women in Engineering Career Day. The annual event brings high school girls to campus to learn about engineering careers and meet with women Purdue students, faculty and alumnae.

Mechalke also was involved in the Society of Women Engineers. "SWE was a great avenue of support for me from the time I was freshman, allowing me to network with older students who helped me with my studies, and with women faculty members who were role models," she says.

Diane Windler, a 1985 civil engineering graduate and Fowler native, works in Purdue's Department of Facilities Planning. She is part of a team that plans, designs and oversees construction projects on campus. Windler is in charge of the renovation and redesign of Purdue's $7 million golf complex.

"My experience as a student at Purdue was a very positive one, and though I may have stood out as one of the few women in some of my classes, I don't think I was treated any differently than male students," Windler says. "In my experience as a professional engineer, I've never run into any problems as a woman in a typically male-dominated field."

By the time Windler graduated in 1985, Purdue's Women in Engineering Programs had already been in place for 15 years. The formal program was established in 1969 to increase the participation of women in engineering by encouraging young women to study engineering and supporting them through their college careers.

In 1969, one of the first things the first director of the programs did for female students was to make a map of where the women's restrooms were located in each of the engineering buildings, Daniels says. "In most cases there was only one in a building," she says.

Purdue's Women in Engineering Programs, one of the first of its kind in the country, now includes a wide variety of activities and programs, such as recruiting and career counseling at the junior high and high school level; mentoring programs and peer groups for students once they enroll at Purdue; networking with alumnae and industry supporters; and a program that encourages women to seek advanced engineering degrees.

Daniels says Purdue's efforts tend to be viewed as a model for other universities, nationally and internationally. In 1990, she co-founded a national organization called the Women in Engineering Program Advocates Network, which encourages women to become engineers. Today there are more than 50 Women in Engineering Programs around the country.

"After the university started these programs, we really saw what a difference they made," Daniels says. "I came on board as director of the programs in 1978, and the number of women graduating has increased steadily since then.

"But, as is the case nationally, we've gotten to a plateau in the number of women graduating with engineering degrees.

"I think the easy work is done. One of the things that caused a dramatic growth in the '70s and early '80s was that young women just hadn't been getting career information about engineering, that engineering is an exciting career, it's challenging and it pays well. That's what Purdue and other universities began doing."

Daniels says there also were very few role models for young women interested in engineering. Now, she says, about 50 engineering alumnae come back to Purdue each year as role models to participate in various activities, including Women in Engineering Career Day.

While women have made great strides in the engineering profession in the past 25 years, Daniels says it will be many years before the number of women engineering graduates approaches parity with men, and she says the hard work is still ahead -- making changes in society and education.

"For example, we need to help engineering rise above the stereotypes, that engineering is a 'thing-oriented' profession and that it doesn't have much to do with people," she says. "That's pretty far from the truth."

Daniels says there are some things that faculty, teaching assistants and engineering administrators at Purdue and nationwide can do to help make the classroom, the laboratory and the engineering curriculum more interesting and supportive for young women.

For example, Purdue has established interactive Classroom Climate workshops for engineering and science faculty and teaching assistants to increase their awareness of gender issues in the classroom. Daniels says Purdue and a few other universities also are beginning to look at how they can include more collaborative learning and team approaches in engineering education.

"We definitely have solid collaborative and team-oriented projects in our junior- and senior-level design courses, but we need to get them into the curriculum earlier," Daniels says. "Those are the types of skills used in the engineering profession, and in most cases, women enjoy collaborative work and are often better at it than men.

"These types of curriculum changes will be motivational for all of our students, men and women alike."

Sources: Jennifer L. Wise, (765) 743-2883; after May 17, (708) 430-5922; e-mail,
Jane Z. Daniels, (765) 494-3889; home, (765) 448-2909; e-mail,
Laura Mechalke, (607) 974-1925; e-mail,
Diane Windler, (765) 494-6936; e-mail,
Writer: Amanda Siegfried, (765) 494-4709; home, (765) 497-1245; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Photo caption

Diane Windler, a 1985 graduate of Purdue's School of Civil Engineering, manages construction projects on campus and is in charge of the renovation of the university's $7 million golf complex. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)

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