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WiSE program celebrates 30 years of progress

For years, women studying science and engineering have faced discrimination and isolation, simply because of their gender. But the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) program is fighting this stigma.

WiSE provides a community for those students to face challenges and to support each other, together.

Lora Leigh Chrystal, the program's director, refers to it as a sisterhood.

“Often times, women typically leave science and engineering because they don’t feel like they belong," Chrystal said. One of the things that WiSE tries to do is provide a sense of belonging to students so they don’t feel isolated.”

Jackie Mesenbrink, office and student role model assistant, knows that if she had a really rough week, she could come to the office and be supported by those around her.

Katelyn Fritz and Perla Carmenate, both apart of the WiSE Program, take study breaks by painting canvases in Carver Hall on Dec. 7 during Dead Week. The Women in Science and Engineering Program brings awareness to women in these majors and offers opportunities to network and build community. Fritz likes how laid back it is, and likes canvas painting as a study break. Like Fritz, Carmenate's favorite part is the peace and that it relieves stress from tests. Jenny Bakke/Iowa State Daily

Celebrating 30 years, WiSE has seen a dramatic growth from 1,800 women in STEM to 5,500. The first-year residential program provides a sense of belonging, and without the program, there wouldn’t be as high of retention rates and graduation rates for women in science and engineering.

WiSE provides many outreach programs that impact more than 9,000 K-12 students around Iowa, especially in central Iowa.

One of those programs is the Taking the Road Less Traveled Career Conference, which has had more than 65,000 students in attendance over the past 30 years. The conference offers the opportunity to work with STEM professionals. As a result, young women are more likely to choose STEM and study at Iowa State.

“To solve problems, we need a variety of voices. No one person can solve the world’s problems,” Chrystal said.

More than a hundred student role models, consisting of WiSE undergrads, are hired to go into classrooms around Iowa to excite young boys and girls about STEM careers. Chrystal believes it is important for young girls to have role models in the classroom, but it is also important for boys to see what real scientists and engineers look like. Even if students feel as if they aren’t the "typical engineering students," they are crucial aspects to solve the problems of the world.

“There are so many leadership opportunities inside and outside of WiSE and they encourage you to go out and do other clubs and organizations,” Mackenzie Sissel, a graduate assistant with the outreach program, said.

The learning communities through WiSE, which have involved more than 3,000 women, have the highest retention rates for women in STEM. Chrystal said students who participate in the programs that WiSE offers are more likely to graduate with a STEM degree, and therefore go into a science and engineering career field.

“Economically, the long-term payout of having a STEM degree means that those students will be able to pay off their student loans and support families while having exciting careers," Chrystal said. “Without the WiSE program, our STEM graduation rates would not be as robust as they are.”

Chrystal went on to explain the stigmas attached to women who are in science and engineering career fields, saying, “there is a big misconception that women are working for their own enjoyment and not necessarily supporting their families on their salaries. We still associate power with males and [we still associate that] they are supporting families ... their work is valued more than women’s work.”

WiSE is working to change that by doing professional development with companies such as Emerson, Boeing, Rockwell Collins, Caterpillar and John Deere. WiSE works with these companies to have conversations, information sessions and leadership webinars that reach thousands of individuals.

Chrystal’s philosophy is to change our culture, we have to change the way we do work.

Yet the success of the program does not come without failure.

WiSE took a hit during the 2010 economic recession and had to cut its successful summer internship program, which Chrystal had overseen for almost a decade. The program had seen a number of women not only graduate in science and engineering, but continue on to be faculty members. Although the program was successful in the past, WiSE has not been able to reinstate the summer internship program due to a lack of funding.

That's not to say that the program isn't supported. But Chrystal says there is a lack of understanding on why girls are diverted from science and engineering.

“You no longer have individuals saying ‘Why don’t you go somewhere else’ or 'Are you sure you want to do that?’ It has become very subtle,” Chrystal said.

Chrystal has noticed that third-grade girls are just as excited as the boys about potentially becoming the president of the United States or becoming an engineer or scientist. But when the girls move on to middle school, the number of those interested in STEM decreases.

“Over time, girls are getting the messages that they don’t belong. Those small messages add up over time,” Chrystal said in reference to the Forever 21 shirt that reads "allergic to algebra" and the J.C. Penney shirt that reads "too pretty for homework." “When we give them shirts that are not empowering and telling them where their value lies, we are sending the wrong messages.”

If Chrystal could teach young women one thing, it would be resiliency.

“I think there is a stigma for young girls today about failure," Chrystal said. "We tell our young girls today to be perfect, to get that 4.0, to look good and be well behaved. They come to college and it is the first time, especially [for] our women in STEM, maybe [these young women] don’t have that perfect grade. How you rebound from failure is where you’re going to learn the most.”

Rachael Barnes, a student assistant with the Student Role Model program, said one of the best aspects of WiSE is the support system.

"I’ve met really uplifting women in STEM majors through this kind of support group,” Barnes said.

Getting involved as a student is as simple as walking through the door of Carver 218 and visiting with a staff member to see where that student is and what their goals are.

For Barnes, her involvement in the program has made a world of difference.

“I wouldn’t be half the woman I am without the program," Barnes said. "It has built up my confidence, given me opportunities and [it] has impacted ... who I am."

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