New Diversity and Women's Program to Reach Out to Girls and Minorities

WPI Aims to Open Doors to Careers in Science and Engineering

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - Despite the growing opportunities for women and minorities in today's world, the realms of science and engineering remain out of reach for many. Now Stephanie Blaisdell is out to change that demographic at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Her newly created job is to increase diversity among the students at this Worcester, Mass., technological university.

Blaisdell came to WPI in mid-December as director of Diversity and Women's Programs. Less than a month later, she had already launched new outreach programs and campus focus groups to further her goals.

"I'm offering a couple of programs for high-school students in February during National Engineers Week," Blaisdell said. On Wednesday, Feb. 21, from 1 to 4 p.m., a special program for minority students will be held. On Thursday, Feb. 22, from 1 to 4 p.m., WPI will host Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. Information on both programs, to be held in Riley Commons, Sanford Riley Hall, on the WPI campus, can be found at http://www.wpi.edu/Admin/Diversity/. Interested students should register for these programs by Feb. 7 at that site.

Blaisdell hopes these events will kick off a new era at WPI.

"My new position responds to a long-standing need to focus on women's programs at WPI as well as a need for additional service to our diverse student populations," she explained. She will develop outreach programs for pre-college girls and underrepresented minority students, provide programming and support for women students and offer programs on diversity, including religious and sexual orientation, for the WPI community.

Blaisdell previously served as director of the Women in Applied Science and Engineering Program at Arizona State University. She holds a master's of counseling and Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Arizona State University. At WPI, she reports to Janet Richardson, associate vice president of Student Affairs and dean of Student Life. Blaisdell lives in Worcester with her husband, John, a retired law enforcement officer and full-time dad to children James, 5, and Daniel, 11 months.

Blaisdell aims to enlighten young people about the wealth of opportunity in engineering. "The most common comment I hear from girls is, 'I had no idea this was engineering,'" she said. And that's a main strategy she is using in her new job at WPI. "Research tells us that girls enter science because they want to help people, the environment and animals so I want to show them how engineering does this."

Biomedical engineering is an example of a fertile career area that too few girls explore, said Blaisdell.

"Girls often have no idea that, for example, you can use a computer program to study breathing patterns related to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome," she said. "Girls love to see a job is going to make a difference in people's lives."

Blaisdell's new job follows a national trend in bringing more minorities and women into engineering and science education. Among other responsibilities, she will work with WPI's research administration on garnering funding from the federal government and industry for that purpose.

"This is a hot topic," Blaisdell said. "The federal government wants to keep America's competitive edge; industry wants to do the same. We're always going to need engineers - they are integral to the functioning of our world. We have to recruit the best minds, no matter what packaging they come in."

Blaisdell notes that gender differences are disappearing in math and science achievement tests in K-12 education.

"We've had a lot of success in that age group," she said. "Now we have to step up to the plate and get them interested in engineering. But the competence is there."

Through programs that show the possibilities of a science and engineering career, Blaisdell hopes to attract more women and minority students to WPI. The University has made strides in this area already, allowing Blaisdell to begin on a positive momentum: Since 1997, the number of women on campus has increased from 22 to 25 percent. In addition, the summer program, Camp REACH, has brought Massachusetts sixth-grade girls to campus for hands-on lessons in science and engineering for the past several years. But there is still much to do before today's world finds equality in opportunity for science, technology and engineering.

"Unfortunately, most girls just don't get information about engineering," Blaisdell said. "The girls who make it into engineering tend to be mentored by a parent, teacher or counselor who says, 'Hey, you are good in math or science. You should look into engineering.' We want to level the playing field so boys and girls get equal exposure to look at engineering as a career."

Founded in 1865, WPI enrolls 2,700 undergraduate and 1,100 graduate students in science, engineering, management, social science and humanities. Under the WPI Plan, students complete projects in their major course of study; humanities; and science and society. For more information on diversity and women's programs, contact Stephanie L. Blaisdell at 508-831-5114 or e-mail slb@wpi.edu.