Residential community helps science-minded college women succeed

March 20, 2012

by Renee Meiller

Student Jessica MacAllister

Undergraduate Jessica MacAllister works on a class project in a computer lab at the Computer Science building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. MacAllister is a member of UW-Madison’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) residential learning community, a program that seeks to support female students who are pursuing degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) fields.

Photo: Bryce Richter

“Some of my classes can be daunting when I’m the only — or one of a few — female members,” says Jessica MacAllister, a UW-Madison undergraduate studying computer engineering.

As a woman pursuing a degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) field heavily dominated by men, MacAllister isn’t the only female who sometimes feels out of place.

Rather, she’s among many women whose collegiate educational path begins in the sciences — and often ends in frustration and isolation.

Yet, even women who leave STEM disciplines do so with good grades.

“Regardless of grade-point average, participation in WISE is associated with a 140-percent increase in the STEM graduation rate for UW-Madison women.”

Kristyn Masters, associate professor of biomedical engineering and WISE faculty director

“Many studies have shown that women dropping out of engineering is not an issue of performance,” says Kristyn Masters, a UW-Madison associate professor of biomedical engineering. “In fact, women who leave engineering tend to have higher grade-point averages than men who stay in engineering. However, the lack of a support system and the lack of female role models seem to be more influential in women leaving STEM disciplines.”

Offering a support system that ranges from social connections to academic resources and mentoring connections, the UW-Madison Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) residential learning community is helping to reverse that trend.

Elise Gale, a senior computer science and math student who participated in WISE from 2008 to 2010, says the program was all she could have hoped for and more.

“WISE helped me adapt to primarily male classrooms, which was very different from my high school experience,” she says. “Because many WISE women were taking similar classes, it was easy to find people to study with. Most importantly, they were the people I could go to with new college problems — like how to deal with a really bad grade or a study-group conflict. The WISE women were extremely supportive for these first college steps.”

A recent study of UW-Madison student graduation rates shows that WISE plays a key role in retaining women in STEM disciplines through graduation.

“WISE improves graduation in STEM degrees, and WISE improves graduation—period,” says Masters, who is the WISE faculty director.

Of WISE participants whose UW-Madison application stated their interest in a STEM field, nearly three-quarters graduated with a degree in a STEM field. Conversely, of a GPA-matched cohort of UW-Madison women who did not participate in WISE, only about half earned their degree in a STEM field.

“In other words,” says Masters, “regardless of grade-point average, participation in WISE is associated with a 140-percent increase in the STEM graduation rate for UW-Madison women.”

Similarly, she says, about half the underrepresented minority students who participate in WISE earn their degrees in a STEM field, compared with just a third for those who do not participate in WISE.

The benefits to underrepresented women are far- reaching. Quite simply, minority women who declared STEM on their UW-Madison application and participated in WISE have a higher graduation rate than a non-minority woman in the general UW-Madison student population.

“Irrespective of major — STEM or not — WISE is helping to close the graduation achievement gap between those groups,” says Masters.

Retaining women in STEM disciplines is a growing concern at universities around the country. Such efforts also are gaining renewed commitment nationally.

Throughout his tenure, U.S. President Barack Obama has been vocal about the nation’s need to improve student performance and retention in STEM disciplines. His “Educate to Innovate” initiative seeks to increase STEM literacy among all students, increase student competency in STEM disciplines, and expand STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and girls. The president’s 2013 education budget includes funding for programs and partnerships that aim to help the country meet an ambitious goal of a million additional American graduates in STEM over the next decade.

And in September 2011, at news conference in which the National Science Foundation rolled out its Career-Life Balance Initiative, First Lady Michelle Obama discussed the importance of supporting women in STEM fields.

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone,” she said. “We need all hands on deck — and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”

At UW-Madison, simply living, studying and socializing with other science-minded women has eliminated some of those hurdles.

“Students have told me that even if they don't know everyone on the residence hall floor, it’s amazingly reassuring to come back to a community that women have all said, ‘Yes, I like this, too,’” says Ann Haase-Kehl, the WISE program coordinator. “Choosing to be there means a lot.”

About 75 women participate annually in WISE, which got its start in 1995. First-year students apply for WISE, live on a designated floor in Sellery Residence Hall, and organize and participate in social, mentoring, and career- and community-building activities throughout the academic year. They study together and can register for special WISE sections of several fundamental courses.

Through a mentoring course for second-year students, WISE also enables women to develop as leaders.

As a sophomore, computer science and math student Gale was a peer mentor, as was Aneela Alamgir, who earned a bachelor’s degree in genetics in December 2011. She also participated in WISE for two academic years and says peer mentors made her freshman year a wonderful experience.

“I wanted to do the same,” says Alamgir, who became a WISE peer mentor her sophomore year. “It benefited me because I developed and strengthened my leadership skills. I’d like to mentor people in my professional career as a physician and/or academic professor, and so this was a stepping stone in that process.”

Beyond peer and academic support, WISE also has begun to offer summer research funding. Biomedical engineering student Anika Abid, who lived in WISE during the 2010-2011 academic year, received a $4,000 grant.

“This grant allowed me to experience a once-in-a-lifetime experience of directly controlling my very own research project in the lab after completing only one year of college,” says Abid, who hopes to become a medical doctor. “I know that this sets me apart from many other people my age.”

While not a UW-Madison WISE past participant herself, WISE faculty director Masters credits a scholarship for women she received as an undergraduate — and the professor who nominated her — for setting her career path.

“I got a summer of paid research experience,” says Masters, who holds bachelor's and doctorate degrees in chemical engineering. “I never even knew faculty did research. Then I started working in that lab and I never left. I worked there until the day I left for grad school. That experience changed my life completely.”

Masters’ message to both prospective and current students is very clear: “You deserve to be at UW-Madison,” she says. “You can succeed. And being part of WISE can help you be a more successful student.”