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Welcome to Tech Towers (No Boys Allowed)

Warren Towers gives women science and math majors their own space

Cynthia Brossman, director of BU's Learning Resource Network, helped create a specialty floor for female science, engineering, and math majors in Warren Towers. Photo by Linda Haas

At her summer job in New Jersey’s Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Heather Barrett (CAS’08, GRS’08) sees plenty of flora and fauna — from endangered turtles that need monitoring and ducks to bait for banding to raccoons awaiting traps and invasive plants requiring removal. But Barrett says that what she hasn’t seen much of, at least among her scientific co-workers, is other women.

Barrett is entering her fifth year of a combined bachelor’s in environmental science and master’s in energy and environmental analysis, and her observation this summer reflects a national gender gap in science and math that stretches from universities into professional circles. While more and more female undergraduates pursue majors in science, technology, engineering, and math (known collectively as STEM) every year, they remain underrepresented in many fields, especially engineering and computer science, and they also abandon science for the humanities at higher rates than do men. The disparity inspired the creation of a specialty floor for female STEM majors on the 15th  floor of A Tower in Warren Towers that will begin this fall.

“I think [the STEM floor] will give the incoming freshman females trying to make their way in the sciences a sense of camaraderie,” says Barrett, who will be the floor’s resident advisor.

Barrett will oversee about forty students, including two sophomore “peer mentors” and three junior  “peer leaders.” She will work with a faculty/administration committee chaired by Cynthia Brossman, director of Boston University’s Learning Resource Network. The new floor was one of several “STEM retention” programs included in a 2006 BU grant proposal to the National Science Foundation, spearheaded by Bennett Goldberg, CAS professor and chair of the physics department. Last year, the NSF awarded BU $1.6 million over five years for STEM retention initiatives, which include freshman seminars to familiarize students with university resources and science careers, professional development for faculty, and the “Summer Bridge” program to sure up the science skills of entering freshmen who plan on STEM majors.

The grant proposal provided data on Boston University undergraduates between 1995 and 2004, showing that female students less frequently enter science and math majors (45 percent to 55 percent) and that they represented more than half of the 23 percent of BU STEM majors who eventually leave the sciences for humanities majors. College of Engineering data shows that just 22 percent of its 2006 bachelor’s degree recipients were female, down from about 28 percent in 2004.

Nationally, while women are strongly represented among bachelor’s degrees granted in some areas of science, such as psychology (78 percent) and biological/agricultural sciences (59 percent), they represent just 43 percent of the in the physical sciences, 21 percent in engineering, and 27 percent in computer science, according to a 2006 NSF report. And the gender disparity grows as one moves up the academic ladder and into university faculty positions and scientific professions. According to Boston University Women in Science and Engineering (BU WISE), in 2006, only 10.3 percent of tenure track faculty in engineering and 17 percent of tenure track faculty in the sciences were women.

“You need a lot of support and discipline in [STEM] majors,” says Brossman. At a large university like BU, she says, residence hall neighbors are often a primary source of friends and study groups, particularly for freshman. Still, the new floor, dubbed WISE at Warren, won’t just be about ready-made study groups. The floor’s residents will also take part in workshops, field trips and events, including panel discussions with female scientists at local biotech companies. Half of these activities will be organized by Barrett and the peer mentors and leaders, and half by Brossman and her committee, which includes Kimberly McCall, CAS associate professor of biology, Anna Swan, ENG associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, Elise Morgan, ENG assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, Katinka Csigi, grant developer for the CAS chemistry department, and David Zamojski, BU’s director of residence life.

“We hope to create a community that will be supportive academically, as well as with career advice and awareness, and opportunities for research,” says Brossman, who notes that the first event will be a conversation with Beverly Brown, wife of University President Robert Brown, whose training is in medical technology and neurochemistry and who now works with the Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology in Cambridge. The STEM floor students will also benefit from the enthusiasm of BU’s female science faculty, some of whom, McCall says, will give office hours in the dorm or have lunch with students. “The idea is for students to see us in a less formal environment,” she explains.

According Zamojski, it was the extraordinary level of faculty commitment to the floor that led him to write a letter of support in the grant proposal and to commit to the specialty housing program regardless of NSF approval.
“Each of our specialty residence programs has one faculty or staff member as an advisor, but here we have a team of faculty supporting the floor,” says Zamojski. “It’s a new model.”

Brossman puts her hopes for the new floor in the context of the overall efforts at BU and across the country to increase the number of young people, of either gender, who go into the sciences to stay.

“There is a crisis here. It’s larger than just women,” says Brossman. “If a female is interested enough to pick a science or math major, I would like to do everything possible to give her the support she needs to persist in that field and be successful.”

For Barrett, who has wanted to be a scientist since she went to Girl Scout camp at age 13 and fell in love with working outdoors, the motivation to persist has never been an issue. But she knows that not every new science major has such a clear vision of where all those long hours of study and lab work may lead.

“There’s lots of lab work, lots of long hours. It can be daunting at times,” she says. “I think it helps when you have other people to go through it with you.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.