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Building a Community of Empowerment for Women in STEM with a Focus on Community College Women

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 7

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh Springfield Technical Community College

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Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh is a professor at Springfield Technical Community College, where she teaches courses in physics, engineering mechanics, and structures. A graduate of the engineering transfer program at STCC, McGinnis-Cavanaugh holds a B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She focuses on developing meaningful educational strategies to recruit and retain a diverse student body in engineering and designs innovative learning environments at all levels of the engineering pipeline. Her work in these areas is particularly focused on full inclusion and equity for community college women in engineering and related STEM fields.

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Isabel Huff Springfield Technical Community College

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Isabel is a curriculum designer and training specialist for Transforming Engineering Education for Middle Schools (TEEMS). She joined the “TEEMS team” in 2010 as a Smith College undergraduate. After spending eight years developing her love of storytelling in education and passion for encouraging women in STEM, Isabel took a one-year leave to get a master’s degree in education and technology at Stanford. Since returning, her work has focused more heavily on design and teacher professional development.

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Western Massachusetts boasts one of the nation's highest academic concentrations and largest research capacities; exceptional educational achievement in STEM; a large workforce; and robust STEM-related business sectors. Anchored by “gateway” cities--diverse, underresourced urban centers with large immigrant populations--the region is home to both elite academic institutions and four community colleges.

For reasons not unique to the region, there is a disconnect between STEM opportunities and access--particularly for women of color, low-income women, first-generation college women, and nontraditional women--all disproportionately represented in the community college population. According to The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, women in the region hold less than one-third (28.4%) of all STEM jobs. Only 2.4% of women work in STEM. The US Census Bureau reports that women earn $0.83 for every dollar men earn, and women of color face poverty rates between 11.5-18.8%.

In 2018, four community college women founded the Pioneer Valley Women in STEM Network (PVWIS) to address the issue of access. PVWIS connects women from all STEM entry points--industry, academia, K-12, and nonprofits--to provide mentoring, foster a community of empowerment, cross-pollinate STEM professionals, and provide connections that foster belonging and identity. PVWIS advances equity and inclusion in STEM by celebrating women with nontraditional STEM pathways and experiences--particularly community college women.

This paper will explain the origins of PVWIS, including organizational goals and values; summarize past and planned activities; and present relevant data. Strengths and challenges of the network will be discussed. A review of the literature on the impact of networks and networking events on women in STEM will be provided.

Finally, a collaboration between PVWIS and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) will be highlighted. This partnership, funded by Northrop Grumman, will evaluate the impact of networking interventions on community college women’s motivation, self-efficacy, confidence, and retention in engineering/compsci programs. SWE will use PVWIS as a model for similar networks and research in L.A. and Houston.

McGinnis-Cavanaugh, B., & Huff, I. (2021, July), Building a Community of Empowerment for Women in STEM with a Focus on Community College Women Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36760

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