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High School Launches All-Female Engineering Class

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KEWASKUM, Wis., September 21, 2013 — Seventeen female students are enrolled in Wisconsin's first high school class aimed at women in engineering. The class, at Kewaskum High School, is in its third week and was developed by teachers Patrick Moerchen and Bryan Puls. Department of Public Instruction officials say it's the first gender-specific class of its type in a Wisconsin high school.

Female Engineers - Englarged (9-26-13)
Kewaskum High School sophomore Samantha Wiskirchen, 15, is assisted by technology and engineering education instructor Patrick Moerchen during the
women in engineering class. The school is the first in the state to offer the class to an all-female group of students, according to the Department of Public
Instruction. Photo courtesy Journal Sentinel.

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Moerchen previously worked two years at Bradley Corp. in Menomonee Falls and spent nine years as recruiting director at MGS Mfg. Group in Germantown.

The lack of women in manufacturing was something he wanted to address in the classroom.

Women comprise more than 20 oercent of engineering school graduates but only 11 percent of practicing engineers, according to the National Science Foundation. Only about 30 percent of the 14 million Americans who work in manufacturing are women, a study from the National Women's Law Center noted.

"If we are going to have any hope of replacing all of the retiring baby boomers, we have to get women involved," Moerchen said.

Kewaskum High School has industrial arts classes that are not gender specific, but typically only a few girls sign up for them.

"It's a pretty wide gender gap," Moerchen said, adding that only about three of 35 students in computer-aided machining courses are female.

"The data show that female students are easily intimidated by technology and engineering classes that are traditionally dominated by male students," Moerchen said.

After researching programs in other states, the Kewaskum teachers said they believed they could create an engineering class specifically for girls that would prepare the students for advanced courses.

The class covers basic mechanical design, using three-dimensional software, the history of women in engineering and manufacturing, and career options.

Kondex Corp., a Lomira manufacturer, has offered women engineers to act as mentors and guest speakers for the class.

Kohler Corp. has offered a factory tour and an inside look at its Kohler Design Center, with the visits led by female employees.

The 17 girls enrolled in the Kewaskum High School class are a mix of ages and grade levels, from freshmen to seniors.

"I don't necessarily think we have failed if they don't go into engineering as a career. But I think we would be failing if we didn't provide them with an opportunity to explore it," Moerchen said.

Cultural stereotypes prevail
Getting rid of the stereotypes that men are better suited for careers in engineering and manufacturing would help attract more women to those fields, said Charlene Yauch, head of the industrial engineering program at Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Only about 25 percent of the students enrolled at MSOE are women, and much of that is because of the nursing program.

"As early as grade school, we have socialized children to think that certain things are for boys and certain things are for girls. We need to change that in our culture," Yauch said.

Getting into the field doesn't always equate to success, either.

Women are more likely to quit engineering jobs because of an uncomfortable work environment than for family reasons, according to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee online survey that included responses from more than 3,700 women with degrees from 230 universities.

Nearly half of the women surveyed who left the engineering field said it was because of working conditions and issues such as a lack of career advancement and low salary.

Yet high-paying jobs are going unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants, said Stacey DelVecchio, president of the Society of Women Engineers and an engineer at Caterpillar Inc., based in Peoria, Ill.

"We need more engineers in general, and we need more women in the profession. If we aren't tapping into half of the population, we're missing out," she said.

Support, encouragement critical
DelVecchio has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from University of Cincinnati. She has managed Caterpillar engine product introduction programs, continuous improvement projects and cost-reduction initiatives.

She has been in the engineering field more than 20 years and says she was inspired by her parents and high school math and science teachers.

"I did not grow up in a family of engineers, but I had supportive parents who knew I was good at math and science. And I had teachers who made it fun. I never felt like it was odd or that I was out of place for liking it," she said.

Shalyn Gerczak, a metallurgical engineer, will be one of the class mentors. Her job at Kondex focuses on the raw materials and processes used to make products such as farm equipment cutting tools.

Gerczak has a bachelor's degree in metallurgical and materials engineering from Colorado School of Mines. She says she was exposed to engineering by her older brother and sister, who became engineers.

For young people who don't have that kind of exposure, a class like women in engineering is helpful, Gerczak said.

"Otherwise, I don't think they even realize what the careers can be like," she said.

Source: jsonline.com, © 2013 Journal Sentinel.

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