In the old nursing building on the St. Ambrose University campus in Davenport, Jodi Prosise stood in front of a group of 12 male engineering students and talked over the loud roar of a mill as it carved a pattern out of a plastic block.
Prosise, an assistant professor of engineering and physics, is one of seven women hired in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields at St. Ambrose out of 10 new hires in the past five years. She works in a field where women are vastly under-represented, according to national statistics.
Of the 15 faculty members hired in STEM fields at Augustana College in Rock Island in the past five years, six were women.
It could take almost 100 years for women to represent half of all professors in those fields, according to a gender-equity study that tracked the progress of 2,966 assistant professors hired since 1990 in science and engineering fields.
Prosise, who actively recruits young girls and women into STEM fields in the Quad-Cities, stood in front of the mill during Monday night’s class, fielding technical programming and operational procedure questions without pause.
During her three years of teaching at St. Ambrose and several more years helping with Girls’ Night Out, a program for female high school and community college students interested in engineering, Prosise said she has seen a lot of differences between the way men and women learn.
“You kind of have to give them special attention,” she said of female students. “Even though we don’t like to be treated special, it takes a bit of extra effort to recruit women into engineering because it’s typically a man’s field.”
Nationally, several high-profile initiatives encouraging more women into teaching in the STEM fields have been kicked off in recent years including $3.3 million effort by Cornell University and a collaboration between the University of Chicago and Northwestern University in a three-year effort to recruit and advance women in those fields.
Prosise meets locally with Girl Scout groups and goes to area schools to pique the interest of female students with specially designed exercises that appeal to their sense of fun and encourage them to think outside of the box about what an engineer does.
“I think the problem comes from way back when we’re in middle school and high school when no one says, ‘You’re good at this, you should do it,’” she said.
So, Prosise tailors her activities to fit the group she’s teaching. For girls, she teaches them to make chocolate, lip balm or medical devices.
“I give them a problem statement, and the problem is there’s a person who is temporarily confined to a wheelchair because of a car accident,” she said. “They need something to help them pick up things around the house. It needs to be cheap, and we go through the design process. We try all sorts of things like putting glue on a yardstick.”
The group eventually gets around to building a cardboard hand that can be manipulated with several strings attached to the base.
As Prosise sat in her office fiddling with a model of the hand she builds with students, she said girls seem to be more interested in helping people in their future careers.
“That’s why you see so many in nursing and teaching, even though they may not be teaching in sciences,” Prosise said. “I want to show them that you can do that in engineering.”
According to a national study of post-secondary faculty published by the National Center for Education Statistics, women at four-year colleges and universities are up to 10 percent less likely than men to be promoted to full professor positions.
Prosise said she felt supported by the faculty at St. Ambrose, but she thinks people occasionally are still surprised to see women in her field.
“The hardest thing that I’ve seen, as a woman teaching in engineering, not that I’m a professor, is the incoming students are like, ‘Oh, she’s a girl,’” Prosise said. “It’s over pretty fast. This generation is a lot different than older generations in accepting women in the STEM fields.”
Ryan Piper, a senior in mechanical engineering at St. Ambrose, said Prosise was the only female engineering professor he had, and there were not many women in his classes, but he could see the push to include more of them in STEM fields.
Ultimately, Prosise said she was encouraged by that push but saw changes in policy in local businesses that favored women over men and wasn’t sure that was the best way to approach the problem.
“I am all about equality for women, but I don’t like the idea of affirmative action for women,” she said. “There is no reason we have to have a quota for women, especially because there are fewer women in engineering, and it really tips the scales.”
She said the solution to the problem would be to value quality of work over anything else.
“Women should be judged just as harshly as men,” she said. “But we should be given the opportunity to get there.”