Pratt Dean Tells U.S. Senate Nation Needs Women, Minorities in Engineering

WASHINGTON -- The dean of Duke's Pratt School of Engineering has urged the Senate to act to improve the science and math education of America's children, particularly girls and minorities, so the nation will have the intellectual wherewithal to deal with terrorism and other complex issues.

"It is clear we are engaged in a different kind of war that must be won with advanced logistics, networking, sensors and communications systems," Kristina Johnson told the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space July 24. "And we will need the most highly skilled technical workforce to succeed in this fight."

Yet she said women constitute less than 20 percent of the graduates of the nation's engineering schools and minorities account for fewer than 15 percent of graduates in technical fields.

"What was once a moral obligation to promote diversity by providing equal opportunity for interesting, high-paying careers for all citizens is now a national imperative," she said in testimony prepared for the subcommittee's hearing.

"Simply put, unless we bring more women and minorities into science and engineering fields, we will not have the intellectual capital to address the major economic, environmental, health and security issues facing our nation. Developing our underutilized human resources can be our competitive advantage."

Johnson, the first woman to head Duke's engineering school, said the number of students graduating with engineering and technology-based degrees in the United States has steadily declined over the past generation, from 77,000 in 1985 to 60,000 in 1998.

"Furthermore, our country's majority demographics are changing from male and Caucasian to female and African American, Asian and Hispanic," she said. "We need to ensure that groups currently underrepresented in science, engineering and technology are attracted to careers in these fields. In today's competitive global environment, we cannot afford to lose the human capital these groups represent."

She said there are three significant barriers to getting women involved and succeeding in technological fields. The first is the fact that many high schools allow college-bound students to avoid taking four years of math and science classes.

"We disadvantage our students by permitting them to opt out," she said. "Maybe math is the broccoli of high school education. But we don't let our children get by without broccoli just because they don't like it. Nor should we let them avoid math just because they don't like it."

Johnson said the Third International Mathematics and Science Study published in 1996 showed that America's 12th-grade students ranked among the lowest in the world in mathematical proficiency. Yet, in the same study, fourth graders scored above average as compared to their counterparts in the 26 other countries in the study, she said.

"There is a steady decline between the fourth and 12th grades in the competency and competitiveness of U.S. students as compared to their international peers in science and mathematical understanding. The drop is even more dramatic among young girls. This is because we don't apply the same standards to math and science instruction and expectation of student competence as we do to the social sciences. …

"This is not rocket science. Let us make our 'man on the moon' goal for this decade a call to intellectual arms, to commit ourselves to providing a superior technical education to our children, so that by the time our current fourth grade students graduate from high school in 2010, they will still be among the best in the world in math and science proficiency."

Another barrier is the misperception that engineering and technology careers are "dry," without interaction to people, and unattractive to women, Johnson said. She cited a study that found 90 percent of women polled cited altruistic reasons for choosing a career in science, engineering or technology. Johnson said that in engineering departments where opportunities to make social contributions are obvious, such as biomedical engineering, women make up a substantial percent of the graduates.

"Overcoming the inspirational barrier involves aligning engineering careers with social issues. It has been done through unique partnerships forged between and among universities, foundations, government and industry. I believe schools and colleges of engineering should emphasize technology in service to society. We must focus on 'engineering' better quality of life -- life without pain (biomedical engineering), life without fear (technology for counter-terrorism), and life in harmony with the environment (appropriate use of our natural resources, and harnessing new sources of renewable energy)."

A third barrier to inspiring women and minority students to pursue science and technology careers is the lack of role models and support, Johnson said. Women only constitute 8 percent of the faculty of the nation's engineering schools and colleges, she said.

"We must attract a more diverse population to the professoriat. We need more women and minority students going to graduate school to provide the role models and mentors for our changing population. When they get to graduate school, we need to provide adequate support. Women graduate students more often support themselves in graduate school on their own funds, and/or by working as teaching and research assistants, while men are funded usually on research assistantships, allowing them to focus on the research necessary to obtain a Ph.D., the necessary degree for obtaining a faculty position in the academy."