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Society of Women Engineers

How Community Colleges Are Integral to Engineering Diversity

Community colleges serve underrepresented groups and have strong offerings in engineering transfer and engineering technologies.

Published On: August 2016

By Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, Professor, Physics and Engineering, Springfield Technical Community College in Springfield, Massachusetts

Springfield TechLike many of the nation’s 1,123 community colleges, my institution—Springfield Technical Community College (STCC)—has strong programs in engineering transfer and engineering technologies. Engineering transfer comprises the first two years of the engineering degree; graduates of these programs transfer as juniors to four-year institutions. Engineering technology degrees are two-year terminal programs that prepare students for employment as technicians in engineering fields.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 45% of US undergraduates attend community colleges, including 62% of Native Americans, 57% of Hispanics, and 52% of Blacks. By gender, community college enrollment is 57% women; for first generation students, 36%. Serving underrepresented groups with respect to race, gender, and socioeconomic status—and with strong offerings in engineering transfer and engineering technologies—it stands to reason that community colleges are integral to a diverse engineering workforce.

It stands to reason that community colleges are integral to a diverse engineering workforce.

As a professor of physics and engineering at STCC, as its SWE CIG faculty advisor, and as a graduate of STCC’s engineering transfer program, my goal is to elevate the experiences of community college women in engineering to those of traditional four-year students. I believe SWE is instrumental in providing those experiences. While there are inherent challenges to maintaining SWE in the non-traditional community college environment, these pale in comparison to the educational and professional experiences that SWE can provide to women in engineering during the community college years and beyond.

Are there effective strategies to promote and sustain SWE in community colleges? Can SWE engender the sense of community needed to boost recruitment and retention among female engineering students in community colleges? How will community college students make significant contributions to SWE? As engineers and engineering educators—as design thinkers—I’m confident we can innovate to “grow” SWE at the community college level in ways that work for students, faculty, colleges and universities, and SWE. For example, in my talk at #WE16—SWE: Engendering a Sense of Community in Community Colleges—I’ll present my proposal to establish a SWE network within the Massachusetts community college system which will be strongly tied to four-year SWE chapters and professional chapters.

I believe that community colleges are vital to SWE’s mission. And nowhere is the potential impact of SWE as promising or significant as in the community college. Community colleges and SWE can help each other increase diversity in the engineering pipeline while enriching the academic experiences of women with support and mentorship opportunities. Please join me at #WE16 (Friday, 10/28 at 4:50) to continue the conversation about community colleges and SWE.

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Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, M.S. Civil Engineering, University of Massachusetts Amherst, is professor of physics and engineering mechanics at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). She develops meaningful strategies to recruit/retain a diverse student body in engineering, and, as co-PI on an NSF K-12 engineering education project, designs innovative learning environments at all levels of the engineering pipeline. A graduate of STCC’s engineering transfer program, Beth is the faculty advisor for the SWE CIG at STCC. She is the 2014 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Council for Advancement and Support of Education Massachusetts Professor of the Year.

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