Engineering and Computer Science school looks to double number of women students

Female engineering students

Pacific's School of Engineering and Computer Science sits above the national average with 25% of students comprised of women.

Elizabeth Orwin, School of Engineering and Computer Science dean, has a big goal for University of the Pacific—double the number of women enrolled in the school.

Pacific already sits above the national average with 25% of its engineering and computer science students comprised of women. The national average is approximately 20%.

Orwin wants the school to reflect the general population and reach 50% enrollment among women.

“You're missing out on the talent pool of half of the population if you're not gender balanced,” she said. “Engineering is also a creative endeavor. When you are trying to come up with a good design in engineering you want to have diversity, not everybody thinking the same.”

It’s a goal highlighted by International Women in Engineering Day celebrated annually on June 23 to honor women’s contributions to the field.

Since becoming dean last year, Orwin has taken steps to encourage more women to enter the field. The school held a “meet the women of engineering” event on Admitted Student Day, wrote notes to admitted students on what it’s like to be a woman in engineering and held a civil engineering reception.

The efforts are paying off. The number of women enrolled in civil engineering has nearly doubled from last year. Next year they plan to invite admitted women students to stay overnight and attend classes for a more immersive experience.

“Female students need to be able to see themselves in the community and feel what it's like here,” Orwin said.

The new 10,000-square-foot makerspace—made possible by a $1 million gift from the Fletcher Jones Foundation—could also make a big impact. The lab will have 3D printers, electronic prototyping stations and more. Studies have shown makerspaces can increase motivation and create a feeling of belonging in underrepresented groups.

“Experiential learning builds confidence,” Orwin said. “There are people who tell you, ‘You are only here because you're a girl; you never would have gotten in otherwise.’ When you have those hands-on experiences early in your curriculum, it’s very meaningful.”

The school also plans to use the makerspace for outreach activities to expose students to engineering at an early age, such as:

•    The MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement) college prep program, a program for sixth to twelfth graders which recently held its statewide competition at Pacific;
•    The Tomorrow Project, specialized academies held to prepare Central Valley students for higher education; and 
•    The Summer High School Institute, which brings high schoolers to campus for two weeks to learn and experience college life.

Dean and three engineering department chairs

School of Engineering and Computer Science leadership includes (from left): Shelly Gulati, associate professor and bioengineering chair; Dean Elizabeth Orwin, Elizabeth Basha, professor and electrical and computer engineering chair; and Camilla Saviz, professor and civil engineering Chair. Not pictured: JuEun Lee, associate professor and mechanical engineering chair.

Pacific serves as a strong model for future women students.  Along with the dean, four engineering and computer science department chairs are women: Shelly Gulati, Bioengineering; Camilla Saviz, Civil Engineering; Elizabeth Basha, Electrical and Computer Engineering; and JuEun Lee, Mechanical Engineering.

“Seeing that diversity among leadership and providing experiences to help students grow, whether through conferences or leadership experiences, sets an example and opens doors for others to see the possibility of pursuing those activities,” Saviz said. 

Recent engineering graduate Guadalupe Reyes ’21, ’22 credits the close relationships with faculty and her involvement in Pacific’s chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineering with helping to prepare her.

“Joining (the civil engineering society) was one of the best decisions I made,” Reyes said. “I was able to get out of my comfort zone and make connections with other students on campus, whether they were civil engineering or not, and I was able to grow as a leader by holding an officer position.” 

Reyes, who earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s in engineering science, landed a job less than a month after graduating. She is now working at JCWagner, a structural engineering firm in Stockton, where her position will involve calculating structural loads for buildings.

Though Reyes was sometimes one of the few women in her classes, she says the climate at Pacific was welcoming.

“I never felt like I had to prove myself. We were all just there to learn,” she said.