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Undergraduate Women in Chemical Engineering: Exploring Why They Come

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Focus on Entry Experiences in Chemical Engineering

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1570.1 - 22.1570.16



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Paper Authors


Catherine E. Brawner Research Triangle Educational Consultants

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Catherine E. Brawner is President of Research Triangle Educational Consultants. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Research and Policy Analysis from NC State University in 1996. She specializes in evaluation and research in engineering education, computer science education, teacher education, and technology education. Dr. Brawner is a founding member and Treasurer of Research Triangle Park Evaluators, an American Evaluation Association affiliate organization. She also served as principal evaluator of the NSF-sponsored SUCCEED Coalition and is an active researcher with MIDFIELD. Address: 3504 Corin Court, Raleigh, NC, 27612-4100. Telephone: (+1) 919-782-4427. Email:

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Susan M. Lord University of San Diego

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Susan M. Lord received a B.S. from Cornell University and the M.S. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. She is currently Professor and Coordinator of Electrical Engineering at the University of San Diego. Her teaching and research interests include electronics, optoelectronics, materials science, first year engineering courses, feminist and liberative pedagogies, and student autonomy. Dr. Lord served as General Co-Chair of the 2006 Frontiers in Education Conference. She has been awarded NSF CAREER and ILI grants. She is currently working on a collaborative NSF-funded Gender in Science and Engineering project investigating persistence of women in engineering undergraduate programs. Dr. Lord’s industrial experience includes AT&T Bell Laboratories, General Motors Laboratories, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and SPAWAR Systems Center. She served as the President of the IEEE Education Society in 2009 and 2010.

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Matthew W. Ohland Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Matthew W. Ohland is Associate Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He has degrees from Swarthmore College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Florida. His research on the longitudinal study of engineering students, team assignment, peer evaluation, and active and collaborative teaching methods has been supported by over $11.4 million from the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation and his team received the William Elgin Wickenden Award for the Best Paper in the Journal of Engineering Education in 2008 and multiple conference Best Paper awards. Dr. Ohland is Chair of ASEE’s Educational Research and Methods division and an At-Large member the Administrative Committee of the IEEE Education Society. He was the 2002 - 2006 President of Tau Beta Pi.

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Undergraduate Women in Chemical Engineering: Exploring Why They Come and Stay Catherine E. Brawner and Susan M. LordObjectiveThis paper presents research illuminating the reasons women choose and remain as chemicalengineering (ChemE) undergraduate majors.Relevance to the Chemical Engineering CommunityChemical engineering attracts a larger proportion of women than most other engineering majors.The purpose of this research is to explore the qualities of the major that make it particularlyattractive to women and women’s experiences in the major. Chemical Engineering departmentsthat wish to continue to attract relatively large numbers of women can learn from the positiveexperiences and attitudes of these women. Likewise, their negative perceptions may be mitigatedby policies and programs designed to do so. This study is part of a larger National ScienceFoundation-sponsored study of pockets of success for women in engineering.MethodsFocus groups were held with women majoring in chemical engineering at two universities in thesoutheastern United States. There were 10 participants ranging in age from 20 to 27 who werejuniors and seniors. Participants were asked why they chose their institution, why they chosechemical engineering, and what factors encourage them to stay in the major. They were alsoasked to comment on why they believe women choose and succeed in chemical engineering.ResultsSeveral themes emerged from the focus groups that will be detailed in the final paper. Theseinclude the students’ perceptions of Chem E as a discipline: • A challenging curriculum that the women students take pride in being able to successfully complete • High starting salaries with excellent job prospects for students who wish to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation • A wide range of curricular choices that allow students to be well prepared for a range of graduate study options including medical school • Availability of high quality internships Many felt that chemical engineering was a more “feminine” profession where students are not required to “get their hands dirty” compared with more male-dominated engineering majors where even the buildings “smell like men.In addition, other themes related to the experiences of the women ChemE majors: • Students enjoy chemistry but not physics, particularly at the level required for many other engineering majors. • These women are determined: some stay not so much because they enjoy the major but because they have “made it this far” and can not imagine delaying graduation by changing majors. • These women are resilient: some describe the environment for women as “competitive,” “cutthroat,” and “unfriendly” and yet they stay.

Brawner, C. E., & Lord, S. M., & Ohland, M. W. (2011, June), Undergraduate Women in Chemical Engineering: Exploring Why They Come Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18362

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