Women in engineering at Notre Dame

Majors almost double the national average

While many colleges and universities are struggling to attract and retain women in their engineering programs, the number of women choosing to study engineering at Notre Dame has increased to 33 percent — almost twice the national average. Impressive numbers considering the rigor of an engineering major and the fact that Notre Dame was an all-male school for 130 years, first admitting women in fall 1972.

According to Cathy Pieronek*, associate dean for academic affairs and director of the Women’s Engineering Program in the College of Engineering, programs in the college as well as national organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) help create an environment where women engineering students can flourish.

This was evident at the recent 2015 SWE Region H Conference hosted by the Notre Dame student section in March. Approximately 850 student and professional members gathered to celebrate the conference theme, Bringing the Brains and Beauty to Engineering.

The annual conference is a time for growth and networking. Featuring development activities and a career fair with close to 50 companies seeking female engineers, the conference encourages young women to achieve their full potential. In addition to making an impact on the lives of the attendees, the conference boasted an economic impact of more than $443,000, as attendees stayed at nearby hotels, ate at area restaurants, and visited other local businesses.

All of the hard work in making the conference a success can be traced to the development of the Women’s Engineering Program 13 years ago when Frank P. Incropera, Matthew H. McCloskey Dean of Engineering from 1998 through 2006, chose Pieronek to lead the program.

In the early years some students were dropping the engineering major even before their first test during the first semester. Others, a total of 55 percent of the women and 38 percent of the men, left engineering before reaching their sophomore year.

The women’s program was one of the initiatives that helped change this. Not only has the College of Engineering continued to build stronger ties with its female students, but it has also boosted the retention of men, accelerating the percentage of total students who enroll in and complete the major. Within two years of starting the program, only 28 percent of both groups were leaving engineering, and this past year, 20 percent left to pursue other majors.

The women’s program works mostly through the Notre Dame student section of SWE, which sponsors social events such as picnics and parties; service events such as Girl Scout workshops and charity races; and professional, career and leadership development opportunities through the University Career Center and in conjunction with local business leaders and the Chicago Regional Section of SWE.

In addition to the women’s program, the college made some bold moves to adapt the curriculum and build an engineering community across the University. For example, a challenging first-year computer programming course was moved from fall to spring semester.

Pieronek also worked with the Office of Housing on a pilot program to ensure that 16 to 20 women engineering majors, rather than six or seven, were placed in a single residence hall in order to build communities of students and mutual support and encouragement in a tough major. This concept has since been implemented for all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) undergraduates.

These and other changes paid off. Last year, 102 of the college’s 310 graduates were women, compared to 35 of 205 graduates 10 years ago. The number of graduates overall has also increased. According to Pieronek, expanding participation in engineering by women and minorities [and also keeping men engaged in the program] is vital for the diverse quality of education and the future of the field. And the College of Engineering is certainly on the right path.

* A champion of the Women’s Engineering Program, undergraduate education and STEM programs, and the University, Pieronek passed away unexpectedly on April 9, 2015, leaving colleagues, friends, and family shocked and saddened but determined to continue to build on the positive impact she had on engineering education and gender equity in the STEM fields.


This story was originally published in NDWorks.