Johnson C. Smith – Pioneering Equity for Women in S.T.E.M Industries
Recent studies indicate that women who excel in math and science at the secondary level are less likely to pursue careers in S.T.E.M than male classmates. But at Johnson C. Smith University, officials in the school’s S.T.E.M. college are building a remarkable culture of female retention and success in the S.T.E.M majors.
More than 50 percent of the university’s students pursuing degrees in biology, chemistry, computer science, computer engineering and information systems are women, a number that is also reflected in the gender make-up of the faculty, at just under 40 percent female. As the university prepares to break ground on its $28 million S.T.E.M. facility, gender equity and opportunity at are the top of the list for JCSU’s future goals in service learning and professional achievement.
“When you look at the tradition of computer science, it’s not really appealing to this generation of students,” says Dr. Magdy Attia, Dean of STEM College, Chair of the Council of Deans and James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. “Part of that is that curriculum has become very contemporary, interactive and inviting for females to enhance their skills. We have to create a nurturing environment through providing services, accommodating students and addressing their issues.”
Dr. Attia says that JCSU works to create and maintain models for interactive leadership and opportunities in the job market. As women have different perspectives and ideas from men, the marketplace will benefit from great innovation in research and development.
“Women have different perspectives on designing, and we need to have all of these perspectives together, because all gender and all ethnic groups being able to produce products and programs will address the diversity and the needs of all people,” says Dr. Attia.
Aisha Davis, a senior computer science information major from Piscataway, NJ., says that a key to JCSU’s success in attracting women is in not outwardly promoting gender equity, but opportunities for research and career advancement.
“There’s been a big push for students to research and attend conferences,” says Davis. “Coming as a freshman, I just knew to work hard. And then I looked into some of the research I could do. By spring semester, I was already working on developing software. I’ve created search engines. My chair and Ms. (Lynn) McRae encouraged me to apply to research programs to forward my opportunities.”
Davis cites an internship at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, where she developed a virtual reality video game to help children with special needs as one of the experiences that stand out in her career at JCSU. She has presented at conferences around the world, received top security clearances, and interfaced with government officials from the Department of Homeland Security, but also finds time to serve as a tutor in local elementary and middle schools teaching children about robotics and S.T.E.M. opportunities.
Service learning is an integral part of the S.T.E.M. student experience at JCSU, says Lynn McRae, Director of the university’s One-Stop Academic Student Integration System.
“Our students are required to do 40 hours of community service, but in the STEM college, we’ve made that service relevant to the major,” says McRae. “For us, it starts in the freshman year. Our STEM students are corralled into three or four orientation cohorts, and we plan out what their service learning will be. They know that part of their education is to give back. Last year, they produced a family science night, and we had 60 students design experiments, picked a school, and aligned their science fair with their initiative.”
Dr. Attia says that economic growth and national security will guide the college’s future efforts to train students and to meet needs in Charlotte and beyond.
“If we don’t have innovation, we won’t be able to grow the economy. National security needs well prepared graduates who are US citizens. If there is a lag in the number of citizens prepared to join the industry, it will be a bad situation – we can’t outsource the industry to other nations.”
Renewable energy, robotics, analytics and informatics are all part of JCSU’s new vision for S.T.E.M. education and advancement. But ultimately, students will be empowered by the same concepts that aid most HBCU students to success – compassion and support.
“The encouragement that I’ve received, being able to travel around the world and help the youth here in Charlotte, these are things I never imagined I would be able to do,” says Davis.