When Yves Chabal received the ACS Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences in 2012, he was passionate about putting the accompanying $15,000 cash prize to good use.
Chabal and colleague Magaly Spector had a meeting of the minds to come up with a unique program aimed at encouraging young women to pursue careers in engineering and science.
Chabal is a professor and head of the materials science and engineering department at the University of Texas, Dallas, and Spector is an assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and a Cuban-born physicist and engineer.
Later that same year, Chabal and Spector launched the Young Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) Investigators program, which engages high school students in hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) research, skills building, and mentoring for at least one full academic year. As the program enters its fourth year, it is gaining traction, attracting an increasing number of enthusiastic students as well as growing financial support.
The program targets high school girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, but it is also open to boys. Program participants compete in teams of three to design, develop, and implement innovative solutions to real-world science and engineering problems such as developing effective sunscreens or water filtration systems. Top finishers in the year-end poster presentation competition are eligible for UT Dallas scholarships that range from $1,000 to $2,000.
In designing the program, Spector wanted to provide a richer educational experience than high school students can get from shorter, science-oriented programs or camps. Her aim: to show students how scientists and engineers solve problems through a comprehensive, methodical process that involves critical thinking, research, and data analysis, she says. Under this one-year program, “girls have time to reflect, inquire, and learn,” she adds.
One key element to the program is that it supports each student with not one but four mentors—a UT Dallas graduate student, a UT Dallas faculty member, a high school teacher from the student’s school, and an industry representative. The mentors meet regularly with students to help them stay on track as they complete milestones laid out at the start of the academic year.
Mentors also serve as role models as they help students build skills, tackle challenges, and kick down barriers that might otherwise stop them from pursuing a STEM career.
“Before I got into the program I had been thinking of going into science, but I was apprehensive, because I didn’t know if I was good enough,” says WISE program student participant Sonia Torres, who graduated earlier this month with a 4.0 GPA from Dallas’s Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, the first public all-girls high school in Texas.
However, working with female mentors in electrical engineering, computer science, and materials science changed her perspective, she says. “It made me see that getting into these fields is possible for me, even though I am a girl. If they can do it, I think I can do it, too,” adds Torres, who plans to study science at UT Dallas this fall.
According to Spector, roughly 90% of participants say they have an increased interest in pursuing a STEM field of study after the program, which jumped in size to 51 students during the 2014–15 academic year from nine the previous year. The program keeps evolving, recently rolling in professional development and programming components as well as industry visits.
The WISE program continues to attract growing financial support. Texas Instruments matched the initial donation from the ACS award funded by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation.
“Those in industry are excited about being a part of the program—by providing mentors and financial support—partly because they see it as a fantastic avenue to recruiting women,” Chabal says. “That’s why this program is so exciting—because everybody who is involved benefits.”
For its part, “the Dreyfus Foundation is pleased to see its funds help initiatives, such as the WISE program, that increase the number of women in all the sciences, particularly in the chemical sciences,” says Mark Cardillo, executive director of the foundation. When their participation rises, “society and science greatly benefit.”