A graphic depicting students and activities from the Arizona State University section of the Society of Women Engineers.

Empowering women to bring their strengths to engineering

By

Monique Clement

At its heart, engineering is about helping people. To achieve this aim, engineers need to reflect the diversity of the people they serve.

The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University is committed to aligning the engineering population with the general population through numerous programs designed to increase diversity and inclusivity for women and other groups underrepresented in engineering and technology fields.

The Society of Women Engineers, or SWE, and its affiliate sections around the world are also helping women recognize their unique place and voice in making a societal impact, achieve success in engineering and technology careers and make these fields more inclusive.

This year, SWE awarded 289 scholarships totaling more than $1.2 million to undergraduate and graduate students. These highly accomplished and motivated women include two sophomores, three juniors, a master's degree student and a doctoral degree student in the Fulton Schools.

These scholarships support the work of these Fulton Schools students to advance engineering, help their community and inspire a new generation of diverse engineers.

“Women bring diverse perspectives to the table. Having more women in this field will take us forward much faster and in a more sustainable manner than we can ever imagine,” says biomedical engineering doctoral student Niveditha Muthukrishnan.

A community of support and achievement

The scholars have found many benefits to being members of the ASU section of SWE, from professional development and leadership opportunities, to friendship and support, to outreach and teaching opportunities.

Finding a support network that encourages women in engineering to gather and grow has been key to electrical engineering graduate student Elizabeth Jones’ resilience and success. SWE has added to its support of Jones’ engineering career through a $10,000 Intel SWE Scholarship.

“This community has shown me the value of diversity in engineering and has provided me with a platform to develop my confidence as an engineer. It has been my goal to help others find that same confidence,” says Jones, who has held multiple leadership positions in the ASU section of SWE and won a 2020 SWE Outstanding Collegiate Member Award for her involvement in SWE and the larger engineering community.

Maria Elena Chavez-Echeagaray, a lecturer in the Fulton Schools and adviser to the ASU section of SWE, says successful engineering careers are important components in today’s world, and it is crucial to support students pursuing these professions for their efforts to make continual progress in engineering and technology fields.

“Having organizations such as SWE that support women engineers is key to ensuring we include diverse and balanced points of view that allow us to create integral and well-rounded solutions,” Chavez-Echeagaray says. “The ASU section of SWE contributes to this endeavor by creating an optimal space that offers support, resources and guidance to all its members, which enhances their professional development and facilitates their inclusion and contributions in their communities.”

“Some of the coolest things I've gotten to do with SWE have included outreach for K–12 students, meeting representatives from companies and creating a network of incredibly motivated individuals. This fall, I am also looking forward to attending the annual SWE conference in Indianapolis, WE21, on a full scholarship, participating in a research poster competition and getting to meet all the wonderful people there,” says computer systems engineering major Tina Sindwani.

Making a difference with diverse engineering projects and experiences

Engineering students at ASU have a variety of ways to explore their passion for engineering and conduct impactful research and projects that address real-world challenges.

Muthukrishnan has been inspired to pursue engineering since her childhood — when Indian classical dance inspired a fascination with movement science. In addition, conditions she’d observed in her home country led to her awareness of the lack of accessible and affordable health care technology.

Today, as a biomedical engineering doctoral student, she is developing a wearable sensor-based system for movement rehabilitation. The system provides feedback to help people with Parkinson’s disease walk better, reduce their risk of falling and delay the progression of the disease. This work was part of why Muthukrishnan earned a $1,500 Virginia Counts/Betty Irish SWE for Life Scholarship.

Sindwani, who earned a $5,000 Chevron/SWE Scholarship, is currently in her second internship with NASA, in which she is providing programming support to send a software update to a payload on the International Space Station.

She is also working on her honors thesis project as a student in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College to explore more effective methods of teaching STEM, including quantum computing, with Professor Leland Hartwell, who is director of the Biodesign Pathfinder Center, the Virginia G. Piper Chair of Personalized Medicine and a Nobel laureate.

“For my honors thesis I’m thinking about how we can best teach technical and STEM subjects in ways that are engaging, enlightening and memorable,” Sindwani says. “Using what I learn from this research, I plan to create an educational course that would help the general public to better understand quantum computing — it’s so mysterious right now — and how it could impact their lives in the coming years.”

“Being an engineer is more than being ‘smart.’ An engineer is dedicated, resilient and determined. With the right amount of hard work and dedication, anyone can be an engineer,” says electrical engineering major Diana Leon.

Furthering engineering diversity outside the classroom

Much of the progress in fostering diversity in engineering happens outside the classroom. The 2021 SWE scholars are extensively involved in outreach activities that help make science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) more inclusive.

Sindwani is passionate about STEM education and directs a nonprofit organization called The Scientific Teen. This global youth media organization encourages scientific awareness and education for students, parents and teachers by having teens write STEM articles for publication and contribute to podcasts and YouTube videos.

“I firmly believe that with education also comes empowerment,” Sindwani says. “If you can teach people to build things, to think critically like an engineer and to test properly, they can, quite literally, engineer themselves out of problems. To give people a STEM education is to give them the empowerment that they have the ability to make things better for themselves and others.”

Kellie Phong, an electrical engineering junior and the director of industry relations for the ASU section of SWE, says she didn’t know much about engineering when she first attended ASU in 2012 to earn a business sustainability degree and a marketing degree. It was only when her Calculus I professor asked her about pursuing an engineering degree that she discovered engineering and decided to become an electrical engineer. Since then, she has taken steps to inspire others to pursue engineering and make female engineering role models more visible.

When she went back to school at Chandler-Gilbert Community College before transferring to ASU, Phong helped charter the college’s first SWE affiliate organization in Arizona and set the two-year college up to eventually have a full-fledged section like at ASU.

Now at ASU, Phong and Leon, who both earned $5,000 Chevron/SWE Scholarships, are helping break down barriers to diversity and inclusion by hosting workshops that help people uncover microaggressions in STEM classrooms and other environments. Their work has been shared at the American Society for Engineering Education’s national annual conference and at local community colleges.

It’s this kind of involvement outside the classroom that Leon says she thought made her stand out and led to her being awarded the SWE/Chevron scholarship. She believes it is important to represent her community and work to make progress for the inclusivity of engineering.

“It is vital that individuals from underrepresented groups show up and represent in all STEM fields,” Leon says. “There is a role model within all of us, and we never know who we will inspire to aspire.”

Learn more about the women in engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.