Women in Aerospace Engineering Development
When Dr. Armand Chaput noticed last year how few women were in his aircraft design class, he wanted to know why—and how the department could address the disparity. Systems design instructor Lisa Guerra had noticed the same thing: maybe one in 30 students in her class were female. So along with undergraduate adviser Sarah Kitten, they all got to work.
Kitten contacted the Women in Engineering (WEP) program at UT to find out how to turn around a disturbingly downward trend of female enrollment in the aerospace program: from 20 percent female in 2005, the department’s ratio of women had dropped to an entering class of 12 percent last year.
“It’s gradually been worse, and we don’t know why,” Kitten said. But she is determined to turn the trend around. The aerospace department has changed recruiting materials to appeal to women, replacing photos of rockets and equipment with photos of people doing hands-on work, and is actively reaching out to admitted female students, offering incentive packages to encourage students to choose UT.
“We have a lot of opportunities for undergraduates that these other institutions don’t offer,” Kitten said. “Students have more opportunities for hands-on experiences, student organizations, labs like the satellite design lab and projects usually reserved for grad students at other schools.”
Of the 299 students admitted to the aerospace program for next fall, only 41 are female; Kitten’s goal is to make sure every one of them comes to UT.
“In the past we’ve never reached out to let students know more about the program,” she said. This year, however, they all received letters, emailed invitations for campus visits and congratulatory, personalized postcards from current aerospace students. Incentive packages include admission to a research program, a freshman interest group and study abroad opportunities—activities that freshman don’t realize are often offered to all students.
But recruitment is only half the battle. Enter sophomore Rebekah Sosland, who started the organization Women in Aerospace Leadership Development (WIALD) this year to bring women into the department and retain them.
“A lot of the time women transfer because they get into their aerospace classes and the majority of students are male, so they’re intimidated,” Sosland said.
WIALD brings together female aerospace engineering students for socializing and a hands-on engineering project.
“It’s a great way for all the women to meet each other,” Sosland said. This year’s project is building a research package to go aboard a hybrid ballistic rocket built by students at Sosland’s alma mater, Fredericksburg High School. The rocket, with a camera payload integrated into the nose cone, can go as far as 100,000 feet and will deploy in May at White Sands Missile Range.
Aerospace junior Sarah Hand, on the WIALD transmitter/receiver team for the payload, said the group is definitely a step in the right direction.
“I don’t know if I want to go into airplanes, missiles or whatever, so it’s nice to try different things to see if I like it,” she said. She said natural sciences, her original major, didn’t excite her enough, and she enjoys her classes more now.
“They’re definitely difficult, but at least I enjoy doing them,” she said. “When I’m older, I don’t want to be bored with my job, and with engineering, there’s always a problem that’s going to challenge my brain.”
Sophomore Alexandra Long has known since her high school freshman year she wanted to go into aerospace after an inspiring visit to NASA, but she knows other women need to be convinced; the key is reminding them of the impact they can have in the field.
“Everybody uses the benefits of engineering whether they know it or not,” she said. “You’re going to create something that’s going to make their lives and jobs easier.”
Photo: From left to right, Alexandra Long, Rebekah Sosland and Sarah Hand feel WIALD gives them the double benefit of socializing with other women aerospace engineering students while giving them the chance to apply the skills they are learning in classes.
Photo by Tara Haelle