University of P.E.I Professor creates ProGRES for women in engineering
The program aims to bridge the gap between the high school math and sciences with practical engineering experience in a university research setting.
The underrepresentation of women in engineering is an issue that’s been ongoing for decades. The studies published and the papers written undoubtedly show a chronic problem.
For professor Amy Hsiao, it’s a problem lying at the heart of Promoting Girls in Research In Engineering and Sustainability (ProGRES), a five-week summer research program focusing on high-school girls and bridging the gap between the maths and sciences with an introduction to engineering.
“The program was to bridge this gap…students take chemistry, biology and various math classes but there isn’t an engineering class, “Hsiao said. “So I think what the students learn over the five weeks is that engineering is about taking all of this knowledge that is learned separately, and applying it to solving problems that will enable better quality of life and human interaction,” she said.
The University of P.E.I (UPEI) based program takes a unique approach in rendering the concept of engineering. Drawing on a wide range of influences—including Hsiao’s own philosophical leanings—the group of eight women learn the contextual role of engineering in society while simultaneously engaging with traditional theories, equations and hard sciences.
Offered through the Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering, the participants are each given five weeks to work on projects selected on an area of interest, with presentations to be given on their work at the end of the term. Mentoring them throughout are various leaders from the Canadian engineering industry, including the Dean of Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering Nicholas Krouglicof.
ProGRES takes a 360 approach to engineering from the beginning; week one the students are asked to read profiles on the Governor General of Canada Julie Payette and Canadian Astronaut Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons, while week four focuses on the role emotional intelligence, the importance of failure and the power of imagination.
“It’s becoming more than ‘did they get the math credit? Or did they get the thermodynamics credit?’ now we’re being asked to focus on outcomes,” Hsiao said. “So now when you have a graduate in engineering, it’s ‘does he or she have the harder to measure communications skills or a teamwork ability? And how has that been reflected in their program? It’s a shift to the whole graduate and not just the brain of the graduate,” she said.
The application process follows this fleshed-out approach. Grades are obviously a factor, but so are the written questionnaire and one page recommendation letter written by a teacher or mentor. Participants are given a stipend of $2,200 dollars (equivalent to minimum wage) for the program – paid to work on research projects alongside established female mentors from the Canadian engineering landscape. Funding for ProGRES comes from both UPEI and on behalf of a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant awarded to Hsiao.
It’s in a small anecdote that the philosophy of ProGRES stands out “I did have some parents and teachers come back to me and say ‘you’d be crazy to not admit her because she has the best grades,’” Hsiao said. “For it me it was like ‘well I guess I’m going to be crazy then, because I’m looking for more than just grades.’”