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UC Berkeley adopts mentorship program for women in STEM majors

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SEPTEMBER 23, 2012

As part of a larger effort to increase female participation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, UC Berkeley has signed on to be a lead institution in a new online mentorship program designed to encourage young female undergraduates to enter STEM fields.

The program, called Women in Technology Sharing Online (WitsOn), is a six-week national program that will take place on Piazza, an online forum site employed by students and professors to ask and answer questions about class material, such as homework and exams.

“Pooja Sankar, the founder of Piazza, had the idea for this program,” said Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, which is a sponsor of the program. “She felt quite shy because she was one of three female computer science majors at the Indian Institutes of Technology (Kanpur campus) and, through her own experience, thought that girls in these fields didn’t have enough role models.”

According to Klawe, the program, which starts Oct. 1, is not a formal class but rather an online community for mentors from these industries to share their experiences and impart advice to prospective students wanting to pursue careers in the fields.

Klawe said that mentors for the program must be females who have already earned their undergraduate degrees in one of the STEM fields and be able to commit at least one hour on their assigned day to answering questions posed by students on the program site. She said that 365 women have already signed up to be mentors for the program nationally, and, at this rate, she expects that the program will have more than 500 mentors by its start.

“Computer science and engineering fields don’t see a lot of women, and we actually know why,” Klawe said. “A lot of young women don’t think they will be good in these fields because images in the media show that these fields are male-dominated.”

Klawe, a renowned computer scientist who has made significant research contributions to her field, is one of six lead mentors in the program, which is designed to have a different lead mentor every week along with several other mentors to answer students’ questions daily.

According to Klawe, though the program is aimed at undergraduate students, graduate students wishing to participate can sign up to be mentors.

“I would have loved to have a mentor who was active in the field to help motivate my undergraduate courses — that is, give me perspective on exactly what was important to extract from my classes,” said Leah Anderson, a third-year doctoral student in systems engineering in the civil and environmental engineering department who has signed on to be a mentor, in an email.

Signing up to participate in the program is simple, according to Colette Patt, the diversity director of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences in the UC Berkeley College of Letters and Science. Undergraduate students currently enrolled in a class that uses Piazza can sign up for the program instantly online. Students not using Piazza can request enrollment or ask faculty members to sign them up.

The program is also open to male undergraduates.

“Women who are mentored by men really value that mentoring relationship, because it can be incredibly productive and valuable,” Patt said. “The same can be true in the opposite direction.”

This is not the only program on campus aimed at increasing female involvement in STEM fields. The Society for Women in Science and the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) residential theme program also aim to support and encourage young female undergraduates to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

“Without these programs, it would take a very certain kind of woman to care and pursue her goals,” said Alexis Seymour, a junior bioengineering major and a resident adviser for the WISE program. “Not everyone feels fantastic about themselves, and they need to have that role model to see that someone has done it before.”

Contact Pooja Mhatre at [email protected].

SEPTEMBER 23, 2012