Success of women engineers at Bucknell draws $400,000 Luce grant
November 20, 2008
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Jackie Denning was pretty sure she wanted to be an engineer when she started looking at universities four years ago. She also knew she wanted something more.
Many of Denning's friends in her hometown, Greensburg, Pa., were considering larger state universities and technical colleges, she recalled. Denning found the smaller liberal arts schools like Bucknell University more appealing.
"If you are in a class with 200 other students, you don't have that one-on-one attention," Denning said. "And you don't have as much opportunity to get involved in extra-curricular activities."
Now a third-year student majoring in mechanical engineering, Denning was the first recipient of the McGinnis Scholarship for International Study, allowing her to study abroad in Germany the summer after her first year at Bucknell. She also is a founding member of a club that promotes study abroad for engineering majors.
In many ways, Denning, whose sister, Rosie, also is an engineering major, is typical of women in Bucknell's nationally ranked engineering college. Bucknell has an exceptionally high retention rate among women engineering majors, who comprise 27 percent of the college, well over the national average of 17 percent, said James Orbison, dean of Bucknell's College of Engineering.
The retention rate -- more than 80 percent -- is one of the reasons Bucknell was awarded a five-year, $400,000 grant for 20 scholarships for women through the Clare Boothe Luce Program of the Henry Luce Foundation. Bucknell's Office of Admissions will match the grant with $1.2 million in scholarships, which will be awarded based on merit. Typically, scholarships funded through Luce grants are awarded to college juniors and seniors, Orbison said, but the Bucknell scholarships will be given to first-year students.
"By the time women are juniors or seniors, the retention rate is very high," Orbison said. "Attrition predominantly occurs in the first three semesters, and the Luce scholarships will help us better attract and retain the very best women engineering students."
Nationally ranked program U.S. News & World Report currently ranks Bucknell's College of Engineering eighth in the nation among the 179 engineering colleges not offering doctoral degrees. Five of Bucknell's engineering programs also are ranked from fourth to seventh nationally.
Research shows that women look for university programs that are supportive of students, and they are more likely to choose a course of study where they can make a difference, said Karen Marosi, associate dean of engineering. Women also are drawn to the engineering programs at Bucknell because of the framework of the liberal arts university – which affords more cultural opportunities and the chance to participate in philanthropic projects and experiences.
Bucknell's engineering college is focused on helping students succeed, Marosi said. Students also have the opportunity to take classes outside of their majors and to participate in humanitarian projects such as the Bucknell Brigade, a relief effort for a Nicaraguan community ravaged by Hurricane Mitch in 1990.
"You don't get more classes in the liberal arts than at other engineering programs," Marosi said. "You get better liberal arts classes, and it is also the intellectually diverse community that you get to be a part of that makes Bucknell special. It's the activities you can participate in along with the undergraduate focus."
The College of Engineering also has a high percentage of tenure-track faculty members who are women, Orbison said. That number has tripled during the past six years to 19 percent.
"That shows we are serious about this," Orbison said. "We were ranked 16th in the nation in 2007 in terms of women engineering faculty on the tenure track."
Beyond engineering Fourth-year student Laura Chernak of Rochester, N.Y., a mechanical engineering major, said the liberal arts framework has enriched her experience. Chernak has taken classes on Roman civilizations and dance anthropology and plans to study Shakespeare and psychology next semester.
The supportive environment also has made a difference. Chernak wanted to pursue a minor in biomedical engineering because she is interested in physical rehabilitation, she said, but she was having trouble reconciling her schedule. Her advisers connected her with a biomedical engineering professor, Eric Kennedy, with whom she conducted an independent study.
"He was doing exactly what I wanted to do," Chernak said.
Rosie Denning, Jackie's sister, said she tried not to let her sister's experiences influence her. But having a sibling at Bucknell made her more aware of what the engineering school has to offer. Rosie has had a similar supportive experience. When she had trouble deciding between chemical and mechanical engineering, Rosie talked to alumni and chemical engineering professors.
"They answered all of my questions and gave me a lot of feedback," she said. "They were very helpful."
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