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Liberal Studies in Engineering Programs – Creating Space for Emergent & Individualized Pathways to Success for Women in Computing Disciplines

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Research on Diversification & Inclusion

Tagged Divisions

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering, Liberal Education/Engineering & Society, Women in Engineering, New Engineering Educators, and Student

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1095.1 - 26.1095.12



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Paper Authors


Jane L. Lehr California Polytechnic State University

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Jane Lehr is Chair of the Women's & Gender Studies Department at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is also an Associate Professor in Ethnic Studies, Director of the Science, Technology & Society Minor Programs, and Faculty Director of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority and Underrepresented Student Participation in STEM Program at Cal Poly. She previously served as elected co-chair of the Science & Technology Taskforce of the National Women's Studies Association, and as a Postdoctoral Research Officer at the Centre for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS) at King's College, University of London. Her graduate training is in Science & Technology Studies and Women's Studies at Virginia Tech.

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Michael Haungs California Polytechnic State University

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Michael Haungs is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science Department at California Polytechnic State University. He received his B.S. degree in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from the University of California, Berkeley, his M.S. degree in Computer Science from Clemson University, and his Ph.D in Computer Science from the University of California, Davis. Dr. Haungs specializes in game design, web development, and cloud computing. He is the developer of PolyXpress ( -- a system that allows for the writing and sharing of location-based stories. Dr. Haungs has also been actively involved in curriculum development and undergraduate education. Through industry sponsorship, he has led several K-12 outreach programs to inform and inspire both students and teachers about opportunities in computer science. Recently, Dr. Haungs took on the position of Co-Director of the Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies (LAES) program. LAES is a new, multidiscisplinary degree offered jointly by the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Engineering at Cal Poly.

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Liberal Studies in Engineering Programs – Creating Space for Emergent & Individualized Pathways to Success for Women in Computing DisciplinesToday, an increasing number of women enter, remain, and succeed within science, technology,engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields. However, women’s participation is still notproportionate. Women earned 18.4% of undergraduate degrees in engineering in 2010 accordingto the 2013 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering reportpublished by the NSF, with significant variance by subfield.1 The proportion of womengraduating with a bachelor’s degree in computing disciplines has decreased. 1 In 2012, the U.S.Congress Joint Economic Committee affirmed that, “Women’s increased participation in theSTEM workforce is essential to alleviating the shortage of STEM workers” in the United States.2The ASEE Diversity Task Force has identified increasing the percentage of undergraduatefemale students to 25% by 2020 as a strategic goal.3 Explanations for the continuedunderrepresentation of women include the impacts of the social structures of society, educationand the professions on women’s participation, as well as the content and application of STEMknowledge in these disciplines. While many challenges to recruitment and retention are shared,Roberts, Kassianidou and Irani (2002) suggest that there are “more specific problems that seemunique to or particularly pronounced” in computing disciplines, including huge variance in pre-college computing experience by gender and the ease in which social biases can be incorporatedinto the design of computing systems (p. 85).4However, transformative models for changing the face of computing disciplines already exist.This paper describes and analyzes one such model – an innovative “liberal studies inengineering” (LSE) program at a large state university in California. Jointly offered by theColleges of Liberal Arts and Engineering, LSE is understood as a fourth “computing discipline”by the Department of Computer Science (alongside computer engineering, computer science, andsoftware engineering). Admission to the program is by internal transfer only. Accepted studentscomplete rigorous technical education, including 44 units of support courses shared with theCollege of Engineering as well as the CPSU General Education curriculum; 34-35 units ofadditional coursework in an engineering specialization; 24 units of additional coursework in aliberal arts specialization; and at least 4 LSE courses: two on project-based learning, a seniorproject course, and a capstone.As of Spring 2014, over 35% of LSE graduates are women. Why this difference? Oneexplanation is that LSE is a small major with a high level of one-on-one advising. However, ahigh degree of flexibility also contributes. In the LSE program, iterative revision and recreationof an individualized curriculum and career plan are understood as signs of success rather thanfailure or deviation. Students are encouraged to understand and design their major as a “whole-person technical degree” that does not require them to pass, to assimilate, to compartmentalize,or to conform to stereotypes. We argue that this holistic flexibility may disrupt barriers such asimpostor syndrome by positioning the student not as impostor but as designer and creator – evenwhen enrolled in technical courses in which the sex/gender ratio is skewed male. Lessons learnedfrom “liberal studies in engineering” are identified.1. National Science Board (2013). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2013, Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation. (NSB 13-304)2. U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (2012). STEM Education: Preparing for the Jobs of the Future. Available at: 326f476583203. ASEE Diversity Taskforce (2012). Strategic Plan, 2012-13. Available at: us/diversity/resources/strategic-plan-2012-20134. Roberts, E.S., Kassianidou, M. & Irani, L. (2002). Encouraging women in computer science. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin - Women and Computing, 34(2): 84-88.

Lehr, J. L., & Haungs, M. (2015, June), Liberal Studies in Engineering Programs – Creating Space for Emergent & Individualized Pathways to Success for Women in Computing Disciplines Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24432

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