Women now represent 42 percent of Seattle University students pursuing STEM degrees.

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As a longtime professor and associate dean of Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering, Jean Jacoby, PhD, has seen it too many times: In a STEM class, male students jump to participate in experiments, while women observe, notebooks in hand. Whether the students are measuring stream flow or operating a piece of equipment, it’s a common dynamic.

But, thanks to strong female leadership, the lopsided interaction is fading from the college’s classrooms. Seattle University is the only U.S. institution in which women helm all of the engineering departments. From their leadership vantage point, these women are positioned to reshape classroom culture.

They’ve already achieved a shift in student demographics. Women now represent 42 percent of Seattle University students pursuing STEM degrees. That figure mirrors precisely the percentage of women faculty in SU’s college. “It’s important to have women role models in the classroom so women students can see themselves as engineers or scientists,” says Jacoby.

Roshanak Roshandel
Roshanak Roshandel

Roshanak Roshandel, PhD, took over as chair of SU’s fast-growing computer science department in 2016, after 11 years as a faculty member. “As a woman in the classroom,” she says, “I have an eye for recognizing when women, for whatever reason, may not feel comfortable speaking up or participating in activities.”

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Now that she’s in a leadership role, Roshandel’s making it a priority to address issues of fairness and equity in the classroom dynamic. In the past, when students raised concerns with her, she had little power to create change beyond her own limited sphere. But as department chair, Roshandel has made culture shift part of her job: “The culture of the department and the classroom is my challenge.”

As she sees it, the challenge isn’t just to empower women. It’s also to educate men. “Awareness is key,” agrees Jacoby. “Part of what we’re trying to do is to raise the sensitivity of male faculty.” Roshandel doesn’t hesitate to elevate individual student concerns to other faculty members. And when it comes time for evaluations, she considers a professor’s ability to teach effectively to both men and women.

“We’re a little bit ahead of the curve in some ways,” says Jacoby of SU’s track record of attracting and promoting women. She credits the administration and academic leaders for an emphasis on diversity that has helped women achieve critical mass.

When Roshandel first interviewed on campus, she noticed a distinctly different vibe from that of other universities. “This place really supported me… as far as developing into a good teacher,” she says, “and also caring about work-life balance and women’s issues.”

The university also earns high marks for collaboration. With classes averaging 20-30 participants, students typically support each other both inside and outside the classroom. Professors don’t grade on a curve, so no one feels pressured to compete for the single A that will be handed out in the class.

“We like it when people are superstars,” says Professor Teodora Rutar Shuman, PhD, chair of the department of mechanical engineering, “but we also like to make sure that everybody’s successful.”

The principal investigator of a prestigious National Science Foundation grant, Shuman is out to revolutionize her entire department. “Students have changed a lot in the past 30 years,” she says, “but engineering departments haven’t.”

Shuman is partnering directly with industry—from tech firms to public utilities—to train students on real-life engineering projects. In her vision, students will overhaul their very identities. No longer “engineering students,” they will train—and identify—as engineers from the get-go.

Through another NSF grant, Jacoby and other faculty are investigating how their mission-driven university handles promotions and tenure. In a place that emphasizes devotion to students and service, are women faculty handling a disproportionate share of that work? Their contributions may come at the expense of research and publishing, which are the traditional routes to promotion and tenure.

From classroom dynamics to faculty compensation, there’s no single answer to the complex riddle of culture shift. SU isn’t alone in wrestling with the question of putting more women—and other under-represented groups—into the STEM pipeline. Jacoby and her colleagues are busy sharing research and best practices with colleagues throughout the country. “Everyone’s eager to help crack this nut,” she says.

Visit seattleu.edu/scieng to learn more about Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering.