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June 14, 2004

Undergrad helps make engineering more congenial for women

By Tim Stephens

Roughly 15 percent of undergraduates in UCSC's Baskin School of Engineering are women, which is typical of engineering programs nationwide.

Angela Schmid with a poster in the background describing her work.

Profiles of other outstanding UCSC students are available online at http://www.ucsc.edu/students/profiles/

Angela Schmid knows what this means in terms of the undergraduate experience for women in engineering.

"You might find yourself in a class with one or two women and 37 guys," says Schmid, who is graduating from UCSC this year with a degree in computer engineering.

"It is a really competitive environment, and you don't have many female companions, so it is easy to end up feeling isolated and studying by yourself," she says.

But Schmid managed to avoid that fate. In fact, she has thrived at UCSC, earning the Dean's Award this year, making significant contributions to a faculty research project, and helping to start an honor society in the engineering school. Schmid plans to stay at UCSC for graduate school in computer engineering, starting this fall.

Getting involved in student organizations, networking with other women in the engineering school, and connecting with supportive faculty members were keys to her success, she says.

"There are a lot of faculty who are very supportive, and if you connect with the right people it really helps," she says.

Schmid transferred to UCSC as a junior after studying at Cabrillo College, where she started out majoring in mathematics. She attributes her switch to engineering to Susan Nerton, a UCSC alumna who chairs Cabrillo's computer science program.

"I took her class because I'd been told I needed programming skills for my math major, and she was such a great teacher that I switched majors," Schmid says.

After transferring to UCSC, Schmid met Alexis Culp, a computer science student who had cofounded the UCSC chapter of the Society for Women in Engineering (SWE). Culp persuaded her to join SWE, and in 2002 Schmid was elected copresident of the group.

"It was a great way to meet other women in the engineering school and find people to study with," Schmid says.

In addition to SWE, Schmid also served as an officer in the UCSC student chapters of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Attracting and retaining female students in engineering disciplines is a matter of great concern both at UCSC and, on a national level, at organizations such as ACM, IEEE, and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"It's a huge problem, and a lot of people are trying to figure out how to improve things," says Richard Hughey, professor and chair of computer engineering.

As a woman surrounded mostly by male students, Schmid says she always felt she had to prove herself. She also sometimes felt uncomfortable or was offended by the attitudes and behavior of some of the male students.

"If you complain about it, they criticize you for being 'too sensitive,'" she says.

"We certainly have lab environment issues," agrees Hughey. "It's just so strongly male-oriented because of the overwhelming number of male students. We keep trying things to make it work better for everybody."

A unit on gender issues, for example, has been added to the engineering ethics course required for all computer engineering and electrical engineering majors. The campus also has well-established procedures and policies for dealing with cases of sexual harassment or discrimination (see http://www2.ucsc.edu/title9-sh).

One factor known to improve the recruitment and retention of women is the availability of female role models and mentors. For this reason, Hughey says he is trying to get more female faculty members involved in teaching freshman- and sophomore-level courses in his department.

Schmid has been a valuable source of advice on these issues, says Hughey. She has been working in his research lab since last summer, and she also got him involved in SWE as the group's faculty adviser.

"One of the things I wanted to do as president was to make it more of a co-ed organization instead of women only, so we got some men involved and we now have male members," Schmid says, adding that Hughey has shown remarkable awareness and understanding of the issues facing women in engineering.
"He has been really inspirational and supportive," she says.

Hughey says SWE offers a tremendous mentoring and support system, but the challenge is to get new students involved when they first arrive on campus. "We have to convince them that it will be important for them to have those support mechanisms," he says.

Supporting underrepresented groups such as women in engineering is one goal of the NSF program that funds UCSC's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Information Technology (SURF-IT). Hughey is principal investigator for the SURF-IT program, which involves students from other institutions as well as UCSC students.

"Our focus is on women. We're starting our second year and we have 12 students coming this summer, 10 of them women," he says.

Schmid was one of the first participants in the program last summer. She has since continued working with Hughey on his Kestrel parallel processor project.
"She is becoming a wonderful engineer and is doing great work in computer architecture and design," he says.

Kestrel is a single-board supercomputer used for image processing and biological sequence analysis. Hughey's group is developing a second-generation board, Kestrel 2, that will contain twice as many processing elements (1,024 instead of 512) and should operate at twice the speed. Schmid is working on the controller, which broadcasts instructions to the processing array and coordinates data flow.

"The controller is the heart of the system, so it all comes together in what she's doing," Hughey says.

While putting in long hours on the research project, Schmid has also been an exemplary student. She took two senior-level design courses that Hughey calls "probably the most difficult classes in the curriculum," and got A's in both.

While Hughey marvels at her accomplishments in those courses, Schmid praises the commitment of the instructors, Professor Martine Schlag and Associate Professor Pak Chan.

"The one-on-one experience with the teachers in the lab was fabulous," Schmid says. "I've never met teachers so dedicated. Pak Chan was there until 2 o'clock one night helping me debug my final project."

As she completes her bachelor's degree and prepares for graduate school, Schmid has a new project to think about--starting an honor society for the top students in computer engineering and electrical engineering. Although the organization is still in the planning stages, Schmid says she would like to see it do outreach to local community colleges and high schools.

"Outreach programs can really help get more women into engineering, so it's disappointing to see the budget cuts affecting UC's outreach programs," she says.

An ACM publication on women in computing notes that women "bring new skills and resources to the table" and "represent a vital and largely untapped resource." Angela Schmid seems like a good example of how much women have to offer to the community of engineers.

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