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G.R.A.D.E. Camp Redefines STEM Field Roles

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Elena Watts
G.R.A.D.E. Camp teaches middle school and high school girls about engineering concepts and career options at the UH Cullen College of Engineering.

Engineering and computer science professions attract fewer women than other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields in the United States. For more than a decade, professors at the UH Cullen College of Engineering have worked to change this longstanding tradition by hosting summer engineering camps strictly for girls.

Julie Rogers was glad that she attended UH G.R.A.D.E. Camp (Girls Reaching and Demonstrating Excellence) in 2012 because it was the summer before her junior year at Friendswood High School and that’s when “all the college talk started.”

Rogers didn’t know that she liked building and programming until she attended the camp because she’d always foregone opportunities to work on LEGO Mindstorms with her father and brother in favor of chances to dance.

When the time came to make decisions about college, Rogers chose the University of Houston and enrolled in the Cullen College of Engineering. One of her professors in the Honors Engineering Program helped to arrange her academic schedule so she could pursue both passions at UH.

“Having the left brain-right brain thing at the same time, sometimes I feel like I lead a double life: I engineer during the day, and I dance at night,” Rogers said. “But I like to think they all come together and help me problem solve.”

After completing her freshman year, Rogers returned to G.R.A.D.E. Camp as a college engineering student to continue the cycle that inspired her in high school. In June, she joined a dozen other female student mentors on campus for two weeklong camps hosted by Cullen College. The student mentors and their engineering professors introduced middle school and high school girls to fundamental engineering concepts and important roles engineers play in the world.

“There’s a whole other insight that these women are going to have with their unique experiences,” Rogers said. “I think with more women engineers, we’ll find solutions, and maybe we’ll cure cancer and find ways to fix problems we haven’t fixed already.”

Where are the women? 

Women are not adequately represented in engineering classrooms, and the differences between men and women are needed in the field, said John Glover, UH Cullen College professor of electrical and computer engineering who has co-directed G.R.A.D.E. Camp since its inception in 2002.

“Right now, culturally, girls are led to believe that engineering is for boys, so they stay away from it and that doesn’t make any sense,” Glover said.

Many studies link the scarcity of women in STEM fields to attitudes about gender differences, and some trace the situation back to gender stereotyping that begins with childhood toys. For example, LEGOS Friends sets, currently popular with young girls, place dolled-up female minifigures in stereotypical environments such as hair salons and shopping malls. Yet, advocacy and consumer pressure are slowly changing such cultural norms.

Last year, LEGOS introduced the Research Institute, a limited-edition set of three female minifigures including a paleontologist, a chemist and an astronomer, which immediately sold out. LEGO Space Port sets also included mould-breaking female scientists and astronauts among their minifigures.

Sluggish recruitment and retention of women in engineering colleges and careers likely result from complex combinations of implicit and explicit cultural, environmental and even biological influences, but job availability and pay rates are certainly not among them.

Earlier this year, Forbes published a list of the 20 best-paying jobs for women, which included petroleum, aerospace, and electrical and electronics engineering as well as positions in sales engineering and engineering management. Based on salary, work-life balance and expected employment growth, both mechanical and civil engineering made U.S. News and World Report’s “25 Best Jobs of 2015” list. CNN Money’s top 100 jobs, based on pay, 10-year growth potential and work satisfaction, included biomedical, civil, transportation and structural engineering.

In spite of these reports, women account for less than 20 percent of engineers with bachelor’s degrees in the United States, according to NSF Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering statistics. A paltry 6 percent of those are classified as underrepresented minorities and Asian women. Furthermore, only 25 percent of engineers with master’s and doctoral degrees are women.

The 2014 U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics’ Women in the Labor Force Databook lumped engineering and architecture occupations together and reported that only 14 percent of professionals who worked in those fields were women. The bureau also reported that female engineers earned 18 percent less than their male counterparts. Similar percentages of women earned degrees in computer sciences, while women outnumbered men in other STEM fields, such as biosciences, social sciences and psychology.

The student gender trend in the UH engineering college, including undergraduate and graduate students in 2014, paralleled the national averages with women accounting for approximately 25 percent of students enrolled. The UH colleges of social work and education enrolled the highest percentages of women, with 90 percent and 80 percent respectively.

“If we’re looking for ways to find more students to major in engineering, one way is to tap underrepresented sources, such as female students,” said Stuart Long, developer and co-director of the camp who has taught electrical and computer engineering at Cullen College for more than four decades. “Only 2 percent of female high school students choose to major in engineering in college … so there are large numbers of qualified girls who could be engineers who never see the direction.”

Finding the women

Diverse participation inspires novel solutions to the world’s most challenging problems, so humankind suffers without women in science, engineering and computer science fields, according to an American Association of University Women blog earlier this month.

Since 2002, G.R.A.D.E. Camp, which is sponsored by Halliburton, Exxon and BP, has introduced approximately 850 girls ages 13 to 17 to the fundamentals of engineering through team-based, interactive activities. Each summer, the Cullen College’s two weeklong sessions have exposed campers to basic engineering concepts, career options and mentorship opportunities.

“The G.R.A.D.E. Camps inform young ladies about career paths they might not know exist for them,” said Fritz Claydon, Cullen College professor of electrical and computer engineering who has also co-coordinated the camp since it began.

Providing students with sufficient STEM education early is important because they need strong backgrounds in chemistry and physics to master calculus, which is often the first math course they encounter in college, said Claydon, who also serves as director of both the Honors Engineering Program and the Division of Undergraduate Programs and Student Success.

“Those preliminary courses that they take in 8th through 12th grades are so important because they build the foundation so they’re well prepared after high school to pursue difficult degrees such as engineering,” he continued.

The camp curriculum is a product of many years of trial and error using hands-on activities and project-based demonstrations rather than theories about how students learn, Long said. Intervals of short lessons, fun activities and snack breaks have proven the best way to keep the girls engaged in learning.

“We don’t put them in a room and lecture to them in hour chunks,” Long said. “That’s not going to work for anybody.”

Problem-solving techniques, teamwork and presentation skills are emphasized during the summer camps. Teams of campers build and program LEGO Mindstorm robots to navigate a maze, and they present their projects to an audience of family and friends the final day of camp.

“Communication is an important part of being an engineer,” Glover said. “So, starting on Thursday, they work on their oral presentations – straight-forward explaining of what they did in G.R.A.D.E. Camp.”

The campers learn to write computer algorithms by outlining detailed steps necessary to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Among other principles, they learn about voltages, currents, motors and generators during morning classes, and they apply their knowledge to their LEGO Mindstorm robot projects during afternoon labs. Camp mentors help the girls overcome challenges by teaching them debugging techniques rather than giving them answers.

“We don’t just tell them what to do in the labs,” Glover said. “We switch them into problem-solving mode, so they feel that they – and it’s true – solve the problems themselves.”

Many campers have commented to Claydon over the years that they wished their schools taught science and engineering principles the way G.R.A.D.E. Camp taught them because they learned so much in one week.

Data suggests that approximately 70 percent of the G.R.A.D.E. Camp alumnae who have graduated from high school chose to pursue engineering in college. Some, like Cullen College sophomore engineering student Julie Rogers, have even enrolled at UH and become G.R.A.D.E. Camp mentors.

Women inspire women

Serrae Reed, mechanical engineering sophomore and student co-director of the camp, attended similar STEM camps her sophomore and junior years in high school, which she credits, in part, for her decision to major in engineering.

“At these camps, I had the opportunity to talk to students who were going through classes I was going to be taking soon, professors who were teaching them and women in industry,” Reed said.

Reed chose the University of Houston because of the curriculum, the professors and the honors program. In her opinion, dispelling preconceived notions about engineers was G.R.A.D.E. Camp’s most important achievement.

“At G.R.A.D.E. Camp, they have the opportunity to see that engineers come in all different shapes and forms, and that they have all kinds of interests,” Reed said. “They get to see that women engineers are just as successful as men, and that there’s a support system – people who want them to come into this field and people to help them when they arrive.”

Women bring different skills to the table. While some might have missed introductions to coding, building and AutoCAD in middle school, they still have the ability to learn those disciplines and to use different ways of thinking to their advantage, Reed said.

Samantha Branum, sophomore engineering student and camp co-director, said G.R.A.D.E. Camp helps to build the girls’ confidence. She most enjoyed watching the skeptical girls transform into enthusiastic participants as they engaged in activities such as the speaker lab. The campers built speakers from Styrofoam plates, magnets and metal wires that they plugged into their phones with auxiliary cords to play music.

“The girls never think it’s going to work, and then when it does, it blows their minds, and that’s the coolest part,” Branum said. “They never knew they could do these things as girls because nobody told them.”

While the obvious benefit of G.R.A.D.E. Camp is student recruitment, the unintentional consequence is student retention, Long said. The camp pays about a dozen female engineering students, typically after completion of their freshmen years, to mentor the middle school and high school girls.

“We found that the very act of mentoring the girls changes the undergraduates’ attitudes about engineering,” Long said. “As a result, they are much more likely to stay in engineering, to do well in their classes and to graduate on time than the girls not involved in the mentoring.”

Campers gain career insights

Devyn Yanello, a 16-year-old junior at Hargrave High School in Huffman, attended G.R.A.D.E. Camp because her father, an engineer, wanted her to understand her career options. Devyn and Kennedi Mitchell, a 14-year-old sophomore at Travis High School in Fort Bend ISD, said they gained better understandings of the many branches of engineering and their respective objectives.

“Overall, I think engineering is just going out and fixing problems, making sure things are done the right way and making sure things are safe,” Kennedi said.

Cullen College offers majors in mechanical, industrial, biomedical, chemical and biomolecular, civil and environmental, and electrical and computer engineering. Subsea engineering, aerospace engineering and space architecture programs under the mechanical engineering umbrella offer students additional opportunities.

“There are so many different types of engineering, so it’s nice to know what each kind does,” Kennedi said. “I don’t think it’s fair for people to assume that women can’t do everything guys can do.”

Torn between architecture and engineering, Anisha Lal, granddaughter of UH System Board of Regents member Durga Agrawal, also attended the camp to gain clarity about career opportunities. Consequently, she said she is more optimistic about engineering.

Questionnaires are given to the girls on the camps’ opening and closing days and often reveal transformations in their attitudes toward engineering. During their final presentations, they always impress their parents with their explanations of the control theory behind the operation of their robots, Long said.

“I work for Texas higher education, and we know girls are way behind in STEM education, so it’s great for us to encourage girls and minorities to have STEM classes,” said Durga Agrawal, an engineer and president and CEO of Piping Technology and Products, Inc.

UH answers national call

G.R.A.D.E. Camp was originally funded in 2002 by student tuition and a state grant aimed at increasing numbers of electrical engineering students in Texas. The National Science Foundation funded the camps for the next five years followed by several years of support from Houston-area engineering firms.

“The tuition is a small part of the actual expenses,” Long said. “And we give scholarships to those with financial need.”

G.R.A.D.E. Camp at the Cullen College launched approximately three years before the Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Initiative (T-STEM). The $71 million public-private partnership formed in 2005 to increase numbers of STEM students and professionals by redesigning Texas schools, improving teacher recruitment and training, and aligning long-term educational and economic development objectives.

Through a competitive process, seven T-STEM Centers were designated to serve more than 100 T-STEM Designated Academies and blended Early College High School/T-STEM Academies. The T-STEM Centers, which are strategically located across Texas, work together in a coalition to leverage resources and their unique areas of expertise.

The Southeast Regional Texas STEM Center, a division of the Office of Educational Outreach at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, serves Galveston County and the Houston Metroplex. The center provides college preparatory pipeline programs for students and kindergarten through twelfth-grade teacher development in engineering design, land and aquatic robotics and space biomedical sciences among other academic and instructional concentrations.

In the Houston area, 16 T-STEM Academies serve as learning labs to improve science and math instruction for students in either sixth through twelfth or ninth through twelfth grades. The academies are rigorous secondary schools that aim to increase the number of students who enter STEM careers by improving instruction and academic performance in science and mathematics-related subjects, said Marguerite Sognier, SRT-STEM Center executive director.

A 2007 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report found that “scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.” The report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” recommended urgent comprehensive and coordinated federal effort to maintain the nation’s competitiveness.

In 2012, a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology supported those findings. To maintain the nation’s standing in science and technology during the coming decade, the council predicted a need for approximately one million more STEM professionals than the United States would produce at rates when the report was written.

Although the UH Cullen College of Engineering was already ahead of the game with its G.R.A.D.E. Camps, UH established a centralized center in 2013 to support and expand those efforts. The UH STEM Center adopted G.R.A.D.E. and Step Forward Camps and launched new outreach efforts including kindergarten through twelfth grade teacher training; additional elementary, middle and high school student training programs, fairs and camps; and supportive programs for current university STEM students.

The UH STEM Center is working to develop collaborations with the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Space Center Houston, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Texas Medical Center institutions.

STEM shortages and surpluses

While shortages of women exist across all branches of engineering and many other STEM fields, shortages of men also exist in some of these areas. A 2015 labor review by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics found shortages of employees in some STEM fields and surpluses in others, with job opportunities also influenced by geographic location.

In the public sector, the bureau found shortages of doctoral-level materials science and nuclear engineers as well as systems engineers of all degree levels because of the U.S. citizenship requirement. Temporary shortages of advanced-degree electrical and mechanical engineers were also found in government agencies. In the private sector, the bureau found petroleum engineers, data scientists and software developers in high demand with the fluctuating need for electrical engineers.

Conversely, the bureau found surpluses of doctoral candidates for tenure-track faculty positions in some STEM areas of academia, such as biomedical and physical sciences. Biomedical engineers with doctoral degrees in government STEM fields and doctoral-level biomedical, chemistry and physics professionals were also in abundance.

Forbes published a National Association of Colleges and Employers study that surveyed 300 companies and compiled lists of the best college majors for 2015 graduates seeking employment. Six engineering fields – chemical, electrical, computer, mechanical, materials and aerospace/aeronautical – made the top 10 list for doctoral degrees. The top 10 master’s degrees included mechanical, electrical and computer engineering. Mechanical and electrical engineering also made the top 10 list of bachelor’s degrees.

Editor’s note: Different schools of thought have different views about language used to describe women who serve in roles traditionally held by men. Does “woman,” traditionally used as a noun, or “female,” used as both an adjective and a noun, more accurately describe former Speaker Nancy Pelosi? Was she the first "woman" or "female" Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives? In 1988, was Lenora Fulani the first “female” or “woman” presidential candidate with ballot access in all 50 states? Some advocate that “woman” is the best adjective in such cases because “female” sounds too clinical and refers to any animal species with reproductive organs. Others argue that the point is equality, so “woman” shouldn’t replace “female” as an adjective when “man” doesn’t replace “male.” For example, no one says “man” manager instead of “male” manager. Still others see the rejection of “female” as stigmatization of the state of being female. Generally, the need to continue distinguishing between genders continues to promote their differences. Descriptors are unavoidable in this article because much of its focus is on the shortage of women in engineering and other STEM fields. “Female” is used as an adjective and “women” as a noun.

View photographs of G.R.A.D.E. Camp by Carlos Landa.

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