This article is part of our series highlighting IEEE Fellows in celebration of the Fellow program’s 50th anniversary year.
These female role models are working on programs to get youngsters excited about a career in STEM fields, especially those from underrepresented groups like theirs.
IEEE Life Fellow Delores Etter is director of the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education, part of Southern Methodist University’s Lyle School of Engineering, in Dallas. Her goal: to increase the number and diversity of students through innovative and creative programs. She became the institute’s first director in 2008 after holding high-level positions in two top U.S. military departments. She was the deputy undersecretary of defense for science and technology from 1998 to 2001. And she served as the assistant secretary of the Navy (research, development, and acquisitions), a position she held from 2005 until 2007.
In a 2009 interview in The Year in Defense, Etter said she wanted to change the negative stereotypes of engineers by “getting kids into things related to science or engineering, many of them team activities, where they can interact with engineers and scientists. We have to find ways to help people understand what engineers and scientists really do.”
To that end, Etter has launched several programs. Caruth’s Gender Parity Initiative aims at helping SMU’s engineering program become the first in the nation to attract an equal number of women and men. It does this with programs that help young women see themselves in STEM roles through networking events with other women engineers, engineering camps for girls, and hands-on engineering projects. It also has programs to support the school’s female engineering students. The initiative is making headway: 35 percent of its incoming classes are made up of women, compared with the national average of about 19 percent.
Caruth also is focused on improving how engineering is taught in preuniversity classrooms. Its Infinity Project is a national leader in developing STEM curricula for middle school and high school students—providing teachers with instructional materials and professional development training, outfitting classrooms with low-cost high-impact technology, and developing hands-on engineering design projects.
Etter, whose research interests focused on adaptive signal processing, speech recognition, digital filter design, and software engineering, was elevated to Fellow in 1992 for “for contributions to education through textbooks for engineering computing, and for technical leadership in the area of digital signal processing.” She earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1979 from the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque.
IEEE Fellow Sarah Rajala has introduced gender diversity at every engineering school she’s worked for because, well, she was always the first woman to hold the position for which she was hired. She was the first female tenured professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, and the first female dean of the Bagley College of Engineering at Mississippi State University, in Starkville. There, she established a diversity advisory council to improve the success rates of students of color and women.
She became the first female dean of the College of Engineering at Iowa State University, in Ames, when she was hired in 2013. She has made it her goal to promote diversity within the faculty, student body, and student-led organizations.
In a 2013 interview with Iowa State Daily, she shared her plans for her new role. “At the faculty level, we are all going to be as proactive as we can in terms of searching for certainly the very best quality in terms of the faculty, but also a very diverse faculty,” Rajala said. She said the school would look at ways to build partnerships with high schools that have more diverse populations to help broaden the college’s student body. She would also examine the culture within the college to make sure “we’re as welcoming as we can be and should be to anyone that comes to the university.” In addition, she talked about encouraging student organizations such as the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers to hold events on the campus to illustrate the importance of diversity.
Rajala was elevated to Fellow in 2001 “for contributions to engineering education.” She received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1979 at Rice University, in Houston.
Fellow Cheryl Schrader is passionate about increasing interest in STEM education in her role as chancellor of Missouri University of Science and Technology, in Rollo. She is the first woman to hold that position. Her current research interests focus on creating and assessing innovative learning methods to help students, young and old, succeed in STEM areas. She is also a past president of the IEEE Control Systems Society.
Throughout her career, according to a 2012 interview with STEMblog, Schrader has tried to be a role model for students not well represented in STEM disciplines.
“Being a role model is very important,” she said. “Role models, or the lack thereof, can have a big impact.” As chancellor, she is aware that she has a larger role to play. “When you’re different, such as when you’re a person who is underrepresented in your field, you will be remembered,” she said. “Since I know I will be remembered, I strive to be remembered for positive things.”
Schrader is also working on sharing the untold stories of women and minorities who have become successful in STEM fields, possibly through first-person theatrical monologues that could be presented at colleges and universities across the country.
She is the newest Fellow among the group, having been elevated this year “for leadership and contributions in engineering education.” She earned a Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering in 1991 from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.