When I was starting college, I was deciding between being a doctor, a professional violist, or an engineer. I decided a doctor might impact 20 or 30 people a day, but an engineer can invent things that impact millions of people every day. Some of the exciting projects I have worked on include making sure your cell phone is safe to use, inventing antennas that talk to medical implants like cardiac pacemakers and brain stimulators, and finding faults on airplane wires while the plane is flying to prevent crashes like TWA800. And I still play the viola for fun. Engineers have the power to change the world. That is what we do every day.
Here is a glimpse into my life as an engineer. After teaching about 60 motivated and curious students in the mornings, I spend my afternoons working with smaller groups of students on some really fascinating research projects. One group is studying the electrical properties of sea ice, and we have travelled to Antarctica and the Arctic for this research. Like most creative endeavors, engineering feels very personal. As we were flying into Antarctica for the first time, I was deeply moved by the enormity of our world, of seeing a frozen continent from far above. When we brought up ice cores, sliced it into microthin layers, and saw the startling rainbow of deep crystal hues exposed by the polarizing lens, it made my stomach feel like a giggle and gasp at the same time. Engineers design, measure, test, build, invent, and fix things that help people and our world. It’s a lot of fun. It’s creative. And it is challenging.
For the young women reading this blog, I’d like to point out that one of the best parts of being an engineer has been the flexibility to raise my children with all the love and nurturing they would allow. I took a little more than a year off with each of my children, who were both born while I was in graduate school. I didn’t go back to work full time until they were in school, and even then I could pick them up from school and work at home in the afternoons. Even working part time, I made enough money to help support my family.
So why aren’t there more women in engineering? Engineering students, both men and women, are amazingly similar in many ways. What seems to be different is their environment, the society and experiences with which we are raised. It is interesting that places like Iran, Iraq, and India, often have electrical engineering classes with 40% women, or so my professor colleagues tell me. Whatever the reasons behind the American trend, it doesn’t change that we need creative minds – both guys and gals - with a variety of experiences to draw upon to come up with the innovative solutions to make the world better, safer, cleaner.
Since 1999, the College of Engineering at the University of Utah has increased the output of engineering and computer science degrees by a whopping 97%. The availability of such talent is a magnet for companies moving to Utah, or expanding operations. According to a 2012 survey, there are nearly 2,000 open positions across the Wasatch Front for graduates with BS or higher degrees, with average starting salaries around $60,000. Such growth puts Utah near the top of Forbes Magazine’s “Best States for Business” and job potential, and means plentiful, high-paying jobs for engineering/CS graduates. The jobs are there, the pay is good, and jobs will be there in the future.
So, what can you do? If you are curious about Engineering, check it out! Come to one of our Engineering Days or summer camps at the University of Utah (the next one is Nov. 3, see links below for more). If you are a parent of a child who might be a great Engineer, give her or him lots of chances to explore the world, to work with other smart people, to build, try, create, and yes, to break things now and then. And if you know a curious, clever girl or boy, just ask them, ‘Have You Thought About Being an Engineer?’ and help them learn about the exciting and fun world of engineering. Engineering is a really great career for women and men, and men and women make great engineers.
Dr. Cynthia Furse is the Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Utah
Editor’s note: In 2011-2012, two of 78 bachelor's degrees in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah were women.
Photos used with permission from C. Furse.