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Engineering equality

The average engineering class has almost as much testosterone as the guys’ locker room. Of all undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the engineering department, 680 are male while only 86 are female. Due to this disparity between genders, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) gathers to brainstorm ways to reach out and support all other engineering majors lacking the Y-chromosome.

“SWE isn’t a club just for women, it’s a club promoting women,” said junior Maytal Chai, who is majoring in chemical engineering and is a member of the society.

Though the club is female-oriented, not all of its roughly 80 members are women. David Walker, one of the club’s male members, joined when Rice mentioned SWE needed a treasurer. He has since become passionate about the organization and the message it sends to the community.

“There’s this myth that girls aren’t good in science and math, and it starts being pushed into kids’ minds in elementary school,” Walker said. “That’s why the club is so vital. We need to eliminate this fallacy and show girls that engineering isn’t about being good or bad at a subject. It’s a thought process – a lifestyle.”

So, what made SWE members choose engineering despite this widespread myth?

“I’ve always had this defiant character that wanted to prove I was better than the boys,” SWE President, Jerrika Rice said.

The organization, founded in 1950, opened its USF chapter more than 20 years ago with one goal in mind: to generate enthusiasm toward engineering in young women by showing them the creative side of this science.

Rice smiled broadly when asked how something so grounded in calculus and chemistry could utilize one’s right-brain activity.

“Who created the toilet? Who created the TV? Who created everything? Engineers!” Rice said.

From simple to high-tech demands, engineers must first create a product to fill that demand. Then they develop the most pleasing, yet effective way to use it, combining aesthetics with function.

“Engineering promotes a sense of creativity. It’s hands on; it’s something new every day,” said Korie Fairbairn, who is majoring in chemical engineering.

After a nearly inactive 2004-05 school year, SWE has been focusing on rebuilding the club. Most meetings center on spreading the word about the club, developing stronger ties to the parent organization and planning for the year ahead. Upcoming projects include helping local Girl Scout troops earn their merit badges, teaching about engineering and speaking at local elementary and middle schools.

At the club’s meeting Wednesday, a table was covered in black poster board, construction paper and pictures of Sally Ride and chemical bonds as the club prepared for the annual USF Engineering EXPO. SWE will be hosting a “Slime Time” event in which children use borax and polyvinyl alcohol to create their own slime. This departure from traditional textbook-style learning aims to intrigue its participants about the more creative, hands-on side of engineering.

“Our project will show elementary- and middle-school-aged students how chemical reactions work in a fun way,” Fairbairn said.

While making slime, visitors will also learn about famous female engineers of the past and present.

SWE benefits members through scholarships from the national SWE organization. These scholarships are available to freshmen through graduate students and range from $1,000 to $10,000. In 2003, its nationwide scholarship distributions topped $250,000. Membership with SWE also serves as a resume builder.

“The visibility gained through our partnership with SWE helps us to recruit the best and brightest woman engineers,” Sharon Nunes, vice president of Emerging Business at IBM, told SWE. Meetings are held every first and third Wednesday at 5 p.m. in EMC 2407, located in the TECO Energy Hall. All engineering majors are encouraged to attend and can join the national SWE organization online at Swe.org/join.