By Melissa Mitchell Although national trends indicate a slow but steady increase in the number of women who are preparing for careers in engineering and science, engineering remains one of the least popular fields for women today. According to "Women, Minorities and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1994," a report published last year by the National Science Foundation, women earned 15 percent of all bachelor's degrees, 14 percent of all master's degrees and only 9 percent of doctorates awarded by U.S. engineering schools. Among the other discouraging statistics documented in the report: Only 9 percent of working engineers are women. Those numbers are cause for concern for engineering deans and faculty nationwide, as well as at the UI, where the engineering school is consistently ranked among the nation's top three. This past September, in an effort to close the gender gap, the UI College of Engineering launched the Women in Engineering Program. "In establishing this new program, the college and the university are showing their commitment to increasing the number of women here, as well as working to ensure that the environment here is as hospitable as possible," said Donna Brown, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the program. Brown said computer science professor Marianne Winslett and other engineering faculty members played a key role in the development of the program, and associate dean Roscoe Pershing was instrumental in obtaining support for it. A steering committee, consisting of engineering faculty and students, helps identify goals and objectives. At this stage of the development, the program includes a number of initiatives. However, Brown said, initial efforts are focused on retention. "WIE activities include counseling, advising and other services related to personal and academic matters," she said. "I encourage students to stop by anytime, just to introduce themselves. And, certainly, I would hope that any woman in engineering who is encountering difficulties will view the WIE office as an additional resource." A more long-term goal of the program is the development of effective means of encouraging girls and young women to consider and prepare for engineering careers prior to high school graduation. "The primary problem is visibility - getting more young women to think of careers in science and engineering," Brown said. She added that "at the high school level, girls are as likely as boys to enroll in most science and mathematics courses, and hence are well-prepared to study engineering at the university level." Yet for various reasons, they're simply not moving through the educational-career pipeline. Brown said it's difficult to pinpoint all the factors that contribute to the engineering gender gap. According to the NSF report, higher percentages of females than males indicate that high school counselors advised them not to take senior mathematics or science. Further, the report documents a 16 percentage point difference between male and female 10th-graders who reported ever talking to their parents about issues related to science and technology. Even after young women make it past these initial hurdles, the track to a successful engineering career - in industry or academia - often is lined with additional obstacles. Most notable is an academic environment that includes few role models. "Nationally, about 3 percent of full professors of engineering are women," said Brown, who noted that the UI engineering faculty includes only about 20 female faculty members. In her own, field, she is one of three. Brown acknowledges that the learning environment for female engineering students can be difficult, and "there are occasional threatening or even hostile situations - often due to thoughtlessness rather than malicious intent." However, she added, "while some see problems, others see none at all. Different people simply react differently to different situations." "Any time you have a field that's been dominated by one sex, it can be harder for the other to break in," she said. "Once more people do it and see more women in engineering, that will change. "One of the strengths of the UI College of Engineering is that we have 908 undergraduate women in the college out of a total of 5,569 students. There are many women in engineering here." And that notion of strength - and support - in numbers is among the most important messages Brown hopes to communicate loud and clear to female high school students in Illinois. More simply stated, she wants them to know these two things: "You are not alone, and the UI cares." Brown has several ideas about how to get the word out and to encourage young women to consider engineering studies early in the development of their academic and career plans. Among them is for the program to be a catalyst for establishing more awards and scholarships for female students. "It is particularly important to be able to offer these awards to students early in their careers. High school seniors often are not aware of the prestige of their own state's university," she said, "and I believe it would be very helpful to be able to offer some enticements - even small financial awards, possibly in conjunction with offers of summer internships." Brown added that "discussions are under way regarding summer recruitment and/or camp activities." Camps could be offered for high school- and middle-school-aged girls. "In particular," she said, "I would like to see us bring high school girls here after their junior year for a longer-term, more technical introduction to engineering, which could be structured to award university credit." Additionally, Brown said, she would like to increase the number of opportunities for female engineering undergraduates to participate in research projects. Brown admits she has an ambitious agenda, but is committed to chipping away at it with steady determination - and with the assistance of a number of very enthusiastic and energetic students, both undergraduates and graduates. Meanwhile, Brown has been initiating contact with potential industry supporters as well as with colleagues at peer institutions, where similar programs already have had an impact on closing the engineering gender gap. At the University of Washington, for example, efforts of its Women in Engineering Initiative have resulted in graduation rates - at all levels of education - that surpass the national averages. Brown also has been meeting with women enrolled in engineering programs at the UI to establish a better understanding of their needs and to set up opportunities for peer advising. "We already have two studies under way," she added. "The first is being conducted by Jasna Jovanovic, professor in the Division of Human Development and Family Studies. It is designed to help determine what factors are most important in the successful recruitment and retention of women in engineering. Female - and a corresponding number of male - freshmen engineering students are being tracked through their first year at the UI, and hopefully beyond. "The second study focuses on reasons why female students at the UI change majors - whether to another field of engineering or to a non-engineering field."